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Mind's Eye 

A Liberal Arts Journal 
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 

Robert Penn Warren: On the Dark Side of Creation By Marl - . . 

The Portrait By Ben Jacques 

William Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal": 

A Folklorist's View By Mary Ellen Cohane 

Buying Eggs at the Half Way House Poetry By ; ; 

At Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum: 
Looking For Myself In Hyperspace deinea By Bonnu 

In a Seashell BOX Poetry By Paul leSaae 

Fall 1998 

Mind's Eye 

A Liberal Arts Journal 

FALL 1 998 

Massachusetts College of Liberal-Arts 

Editorial Board 

Tony Gengarelly 
Managing Editor 

Bob Bishoff 
Sumi Colligan 
Steve Green 
*Beti Jacques 
Leon Peters 
Maynard Seider 
Meera Tamaya 
*0n sabbatical leave 

© 1998 The Mind's Eye 
ISSN 1098-0512 

The Mind's Eye. a journal of scholarly and creative work, is edited 
and published twice annually by the faculty of Massachusetts 
College of Liberal Arts. While emphasizing articles of scholarly 
merit. The Mind's Eye focuses on a general communication of ideas 
of interest to a liberal arts college- We welcome expository essays, 
including reviews, as well as fiction, poetry and art. Please refer to 
the inside back cover for a iist of submission guidelines. 

The Mind's Eye is funded by the office of Dr. Ashim Basu, Vice 
President for Academic Affairs. 

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 
Formerly North Adams State College 
375 Church Street 
North Adams, MA 01247-4100 

Mind's Eye 

Fall 1998 

The Editor's File 4 

Robert Penn Warren: 

On the Dark Side of Creation 5 

By Mark Daniel Miller 

The Portrait 24 

By Ben Jacques 

William Wordsworth's 

"A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal": 

A Folklorist's View 28 

By Mary Ellen Cohane 

Buying Eggs at the Half Way House 52 


By Jan Myskowski 

At Cleveland's 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum: 

Looking for Myself in Hyper space 54 


By Bonnie Bisholf 

In a Seashell Box 63 


By Paul LeSage 

Contributors 64 

The Editor's File 

is indeed a pleasure to introduce this Fall 1998 edition of The 
Mind's Eye. Featured is the work of several authors, all of whom have 
something special to offer. Mark Miller favors us with another piece, 
this time his award-winning presentation for the Faculty Lecture 
Series on the life and work of Robert Pcnn Warren. Mary Ellen 
Cohane demonstrates a remarkable versatility. After "The Gift of the 
Falcon" — a humorous interlude for the 1998 Spring edition — she 
presents here a scholarly analysis of William Wordsworth's "A Slum- 
ber Did My Spirit Seal." Adding to these distinguished contributions, 
Paul LeSage and Jan Myskowski provide two poems, and Ben 
Jacques — currently on sabbatical leave — displays his observation of 
character with "The Portrait." As the first alumnus published in The 
Mind's Eye, Jan Myskowski expands the journal's author base. 
Finally, the Review section retains its lively prose with Bonnie 
Bishoff's personal encounter "At Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of 
Fame and Museum." As we congratulate and leature the work of 
these authors, The Mind's Eye continues to accept submissions. The 
deadline for the Spring 1999 edition is January 15. 

4 The Mind's Eye 

Robert Penn Warren 
On the Dark Side of 



JL. T JLy general subject is the conflict between art and life, 
between the artist — in this case, the writer — and his or her world; and 
my specific subject is this conflict in the life and work of the twentieth 
-century American author, Robert Penn Warren, Since not everyone 
is an artist, 1 begin with a definition of the problem, a description of 
the life/art conflict. Besides, even if you are an artist and are, thus, a 
sort of walking casualty of this conflict, you may not understand what 
hit you, and you may be wondering what to do next. I am not 
offering any solutions here, nor does Warren. As he has said any 
number of times, each individual has to work out his or her own 
salvation. But I am offering, first, a definition of the problem and, 
second, the example of Warren — how he understood and tried to 
cope with the life/art conflict — and this you may find salutary in 
some small way. 

Why Robert Penn Warren? His accomplishments as an artist and 
as a critic are formidable: seventeen volumes of poetry, ten novels 
(plus two unpublished), a collection of short fiction, several plays, a 
biography, two studies of race relations in America, two children's 
books, several books combining history and cultural criticism, and a 
massive body of work on other writers, including shared authorship 
of several textbooks which revolutionized the teaching of literature in 
America. Our first poet laureate. Warren was also clearly a true man 

The Mind's Eye 5 

Mark Daniel Miller 

of letters — the only American, for instance, to have won the Pulitzer 
Prize in both fiction and poetry, for which he won it twice. But 
Warren was not only an artist; he also commented at length on being 
an artist, on the place of the artist in the modern world, particularly 
in America; and he did so not only hi his own works, but also in 
dozens of interviews granted over the years. Thus, Warren seems a 
particularly promising specific subject on which to focus our attention 
(and besides, he's the writer whose work f know best). 

To begin defining the life/art conflict, consider a pair of state- 
ments by Warren from a 1969 interview with Richard B. Sale, 
statements which I also use as a handout in my Creative Writing: 
Poetry class. Here, Warren identifies two requirements for writing 
poetry which are almost guaranteed to put the poet at odds with his 
or her worid: first, the achievement of a state of being which Warren 
calls "passivity" or "prayerful . . . 'waitingness'"; and, second, "time": 
time for achieving the passive state; time to write. Here are Warren's 

Warren: But to poetry. You haveto be willing to 
waste time. When you start a poem, stay 
with it and suffer through it and just think 
about nothing, not even the poem. Just be 
there. It's more of a prayerful state than 
writing the novels is. A lot of the novel is in 
doing good works, as it were, not praying. 
And the prayerful state is just being passive 
with it, mumbling, being around there, lying 
on the grass, going swimming, you see. 
Even getting drunk. Get drunk prayerfully, 

Sale: Then you had the kind of life in recent years 

where you could do this, when you chose. Is 
that correct? Or is there always limited 

Warren: Well, if you can't do it that way, you'd better 
not try. if something seems to be there to 
rob, always rob Peter to pay Paul, [f 
anybody's going to be a writer, he's got to be 

6 The Mind s Eye 

Mark Daniel Miller 

able to say, "This has got to come First, to 
write has to come first." That is, if you have 
a job, you have to scant your job a little bit. 
You can't he an industrious apprentice if 
you're going to he a poet. You've got to 
pretend to be an industrious apprentice but 
really steal time from the boss. Or from your 
wife, or somebody, you see. The time's got 
to come from somewhere. And also this 
passivity, this "waitingness," has to be 
achieved some way. It can't be treated as a 
job. It's got to be treated as a non-job or an 

(Talking 121) 

Lest we think that Warren is alone in his description of the life versus 
art conflict, here is a poetic version of the same thing, from the poem 
"Adam's Curse" by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats. I also use this as a 
handout in my poetry writing class: 

... 'A iine will take us hours maybe; 

Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, 

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. 

Better go down upon your marrow-bones 

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones 

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; 

For to articulate sweet sounds together 

Is to work harder than all these, and yet 

Be thought an idler by the noisy set. 

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen 

The martyrs call the world.' , . . 

(Yeats 78) 

Implied here is also a general scorn on the part of the world for the 
end-product of the poet's efforts: the poem. 

We could multiply such examples; Walt Whitman defiantly 
rejecting the prevailing values of his time — and of ours — by beginning 
Song of Myself, "I teafe and invite my soul"; William Saroyan asserting, 
"My real work is being"; T. S. Eliot, in part 5 of "Burnt Norton," 
describing faces "Distracted from distraction by distraction." But the 

The Mind's Eye! 

Mark Daniel Miller 

point is clear: the writer, particularly the poet and particularly in the 
modern era, feels alienated from society, at odds with the world — a 
victim of the conflict between life and art. Warren was no different, 
and I would argue that this fact is a large part of what darkened his 
artistic vision even long after its apparent brightening in the early 

In an interview with Warren published in 1977, Peter Stitt poses 
the following question: 

Since the fifties your poetry has been mostly optimistic and 
affirmative, emphasizing the glory of the world and iis 
promises. And yet you also have poems on ugliness, death, 
racial violence, and so on. How do these poems fit into 
your vision? 

"That's all part of the picture," Warren responds, 

just the other side of it. You have people like Dreiser, who 
are monsters humanly but who make great things. There is 
Flaubert, whose main goal in going to Egypt was to get the 
clap, and yet he had this inspiration for Madame Bovary, 
and he thanks God to be alive, approaching the curve of the 
wave. It is the complication of life — nothing more compli- 
cated than that. (Talking 244-245) 

Now, in one sense, this is the response we would expect from War- 
ren, a man who spent his entire life trying to show both sides of "the 
picture." In his response to Stitt, he clearly says that his poetic vision 
includes the pessimistic and negative because an entirely optimistic 
and affirmative vision would over-simplify the true complication of 
life and would therefore be false. 

However, in the lives ol the two men he cites as examples — the 
authors Theodore Dreiser and Gustave Flaubert — we have, despite 
Warren's words to the contrary, something a bit more complicated 
than the complication of life; we have the complication of life versus 
art. Warren is concerned here with a sort of corollary of the life/art 
conflict as we have defined it thus far: the fact that people who are 
"monsters humanly" can nevertheless "make great things," but it is 
telling, I think, that he cites these literary artists in response to a 
question about the dark side of his own poetic vision. By all accounts, 
Warren was anything but a "monster" in his own, personal life, but he 
was always fascinated with the writer such as Dreiser whose career, as 

8 The Mind's Eye 

Mark Daniel Miller 

Warren says in his book about him, "raises in a peculiarly poignant 
form the question of the relation of life and art" (Homage 9). In 
particular. Warren seems to have experienced in his own life the truth 
of an irony best expressed by yet another such writer, Samuel Taylor 
Coleridge, in his great poem. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the fact 
that though the writer — in Coleridge's poem, the Mariner — "brings 
the word which is salvation, he cannot quite save himself and taste 
the full joy of the fellowship [of all things] he advertises. Society 
looks askance at him" ("Pure Imagination" 257). He is, as Warren 
says in his essay on The Ancient Mariner, the "poete maudit* — the 
cursed poet. Some causes of the poet's estrangement from society we 
have already seen, But the matter, predictably, is even more compli- 
cated than I have suggested thus far. We shall explore it shortly. 
However, the basic paradox is this: the very qualities and behaviors 
which enable the writer to "see into the life of things" are also the 
qualities and behaviors which cut him or her off from that life, even 
to the point of a kind of suicide. And this predicament, the predica- 
ment of the "poete maudit," would continue to haunt Warren 
apparently till the end of his life. 

Two points before I proceed. First, if I myself am presenting here 
only one side of the picture, the dark side, that is because I have 
already presented the other side, in an essay published in The Missis- 
sippi Quarterly in the Winter of 1994-95 and entitled, "Faith in Good 
Works: The Salvation of Robert Penn Warren." In that essay, I argue 
that the decade-long "drought" of short poems Warren underwent 
from 1944 to 1954 was a symptom of his own sick soul, an index of 
his own need for salvation, and that in the long, experimental works 
he turned to in these years, we have, as Warren says of Coleridge and 
The Ancient Mariner, "the case of a man who saves his own soul by 
composing a poem" — or, in the case of Warren, by composing a novel 
that began as poetry, All the King 's Mm; A Tale in Verse and Voices, the 
book-length poem. Brother to Dragons; and a second, highly experi- 
mental novel, World Enough and Time ("Pure Imagination" 254). 
However, at the end of my essay, 1 indicate that the salvation was not 
final or complete, in part because the complication ol life ensures that 
"[t]he victory is never won. the redemption must be continually re- 
earned" ("Pure and Impure Poetry" 54), but also because Warren 
continued to be haunted by the just-described predicament of the 
writer. The writing which was his salvation was also a curse. 

Second, in the argument to follow, I will be careful, as Warren 

The Mind's Eye 9 

Mark Daniel Miller 

himself always is, to distinguish between those things which he 
claims are true for writers and writing in general, and those things 
which he says are true only for himself. Of course, there is some 
overlap between these things, and it is with such an overlap that 1 
wish to begin. 

In his 1997 biography of Robert Penn Warren, Joseph Blotner 
relates a description of Warren at work which in many ways sums up 
the whole conflict of life versus art, the tension between writing and 
living. In the Summer of 1971, James Glickman, a former student of 
Warren's, was employed by the family at their home in Stratton, 
Vermont, as a sort of general helper, and he was able to observe 
Warren at work on poems. "'When he was in the midst of one,'" 
recalls Glickman, 

"his face took on an extraordinarily meditative quality — 
cheeks sunken, eyes downcast--and he would be completely 
absent from whatever was going on around him. [His wife] 
Eleanor would sometimes remind him to be polite if some- 
one were talking to him or had asked him something. He 
would summon himself out of whatever reverie he was in. 
looking like someone who was swimming to light from a 
deep watery efement, at last breaking the surface, then 
saying he was sorry, smiling aiid "being polite.' A few 
minutes later, he would be back where he had begun." 
(Blotner 394) 

Of course, this would be at lunchtime, an hour preceded by a long 
period of physical exercise before breakfast — bar weights and swim- 
ming — and about four hours of solitary work in the cabin perched on 
the hillside overlooking the stream that runs through the property. 
"~After having one sherry and an hour's break to eat,"" Glickman says 
of Warren, ""he would head back to his cabin and come back about 
five o'clock or so. He then would grab a stick, call for [the dogs] Joey 
and Frodo, and go for a five-mile walk up Mountain Road.' Then 
there would be drinks on the porch at sun set, dinner at eight, 
reading, and bed." (Blotner 394). 

Now what is most notabie about Glickman's description — aside 
from the fact that Warren was in a position to devote such long hours 
to writing— is, first, the fact that Warren spent so many hours alone, 
and second, the fact that, even when he was with people, he would, 
if he was hot on a poem, "be completely absent from whatever was 

10 The Mind's Eye 

Mark Daniel Miller 

going on around him." In various interviews over the years. Warren 
repeatedly said that writing was, for him, "a way of life" (Talking 132, 
228, 370), but as Glickman's description shows, it was a way of life 
that was, in one sense, at odds with life. Indeed, to be "completely 
absent" from what is going on around you is, in one sense, to be 
dead, and yet this very power — the power of the imagination — is 
what, enables the writer to write. 

Early on in his career, Warren pondered this distinguishing 
characteristic of the writer via his work on the English Romantics, 
particularly Coleridge. In his 1945 essay on The Rime of the Ancient 
Mariner, "A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading," 
Warren quotes that portion of William Wordsworth's "Preface to the 
Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads" in which Wordsworth, according to 
Warren, "says, first, that the poet has a "more comprehensive soul' 
than other men, and second, that he is set off from them by a certain 
special endowment. The first notion," explains Warren, "refers to a 
difference in degree, but the second refers to a difference in kind. In 
developing this second notion," Warren observes, "Wordsworth, like 
other Romantic critics, comments on the special nature of the aes- 
thetic experience;" 

the poet has, [Wordsworth] says in the Preface, an "ability 
of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far 
from being the same as those produced by real events, yet , . 
. do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real 
events than anything which, from the motions of their own 
minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in them- 
selves. . . ." ("Pure Imagination" 260; emphases Warren's) 

Warren might also have quoted the phrase just prior to the one he 
does quote, the phrase where Wordsworth says that the poet has "a 
disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if 
they were present" (Wordsworth 453), Had he done so, then I would 
have been able to make this clever observation: it is this "disposition 
to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were 
present" which at tiroes causes the writer to be "completely absent" 
from present things. 

And what are these "absent things" that so occupy the writer's 
attention? Well, the main thing would be whatever the writer is 
working on, lor until he or she creates it, the poem, story, play, or 
whatever can be said to be absent, or to be present only in the 

The Mind's Eye 11 

Mark Daniel Miller 

writer's mind. However, this absent thing consists in turn of any 
number of other absent things: words, images, rhythms, scenes, 
characters, ideas— in short, any and all of the things that will eventu- 
ally go to make up the finished work. And these things may in turn 
consist of any number of absent things from the writer's own experi- 
ence — times, places, people, events, dreams — all different from the 
particular things which are currently present, The absent things 
which occupy the writer's attention may also he wholly imaginary, or 
may be complex amalgams of the known or remembered and the 
imagined: what was and what might have been; what is (but is 
absent) and what may be, 

Indeed, once some present thing summons the writer (rom his or 
her creative reverie and its welter of absent things— as I write this 
sentence, T am summoned from my own creative reverie by the 
laughter of my three-and-a -half-year-old daughter, who wants me to 
see the sprinkles and chocolate she has gotten on her nose from 
eating a doughnut — there is no reason that the writer can't incorpo- 
rate that present thing, if it fits, into the developing pattern of the 
work of art which is the main object of his or her attention. This is, 
in fact, precisely what Warren did when he began writing poems 
again after the ten-year drought. In the interview with Stitt, Warren 
describes the poems in Promises, the first volume after the drought, as 
combinations of "memories and natural events" in the present. 
When the drought broke, the Warrens were living in Italy with their 
children, in a ruined sixteenth-century fortress on the Mediterranean, 
and according to Warren, the poems he wrote at that time 

wander back and forth from my boyhood to my children. 
Seeing a Mule golden-headed girl on that bloody spot of 
history is an event. With the bay beyond, the sea beyond 
thai, the white butterflies, that's all a natural event, (Talk- 
ing 239) 

Combining the history suggested by the fortress. Warren's memories 
of his own personal history, and the experiences of the present, 
including those ol the children, the poems become "one package," 
Warren says in a 1978 interview, "contrast and identity in one 
package — change and continuity — the human story" (Talking 332). 

Given the potency, indeed the vitality of these "absent things" 
which are the objects of the writer's creative reverie — Warren himself 
was wont to call them his "vital images" {Talking 14, 33 1)— perhaps 

12 The Mind's Eye 

Mark Daniel Miller 

writing as a way of life is not 50 at odds with life after all. In fact, far 
from being a kind of death, perhaps the writer's estranging reverie is 
as satisfactory a way of life as life itself. After all, "... the satisfaction 
of living," according to Warren, "is feeling you're living significantly," 
and writing is, as he says, "a way of existing meaningfully as much of 
your time as possible" (Talking 212, 370). This is because it is, like 
philosophy, "a way of thinking about your life as you live," "a way of 
making your own life make sense to you" (Talking f 87, 212), though 
it is not, like philosophy, abstract. Rather, it is "an imaginative 
involvement in experience," an imaginative "enactment" in which ". . . 
the imagination takes the place of literal living ... by moving toward 
values and modifying, testing, and exfoliating older values" (Talking 
82, 305, 171-172). According to Warren, the process of composing a 
work of literature is the process of "knowing what kind of person you 
can be, getting your reality shaped a little bit better" (Talking 16). It is 
the "process of trying to find your way into your own life and life in 
general," of "trying to give shape to experience" and "to know the 
self" (Talking 132-133, 212, 228). It is a way "of exploring the self 
and the world" (Talking 294). In this sense, writing is not at all an act 
which cuts the writer off from the world but, rather, is "a way of 
being open to the world, a way of being open to experience" (Talking 
370). And the rinished work itself is "an image of the possibility of 
meaning in life" or "a metaphor for meaning," "an image of the 
possibility of meaning growing from experience — an image, that is, of 
our continuous effort to make sense of our lives" (Talking 82-83). As 
Warren says at the end of the essay "Knowledge and the Image of 
Man," the form of the finished work "is not a thing detached Irorri the 
world but a thing springing from the deep engagement of spirit with 
the world," and its very rhythm "is, as it were, a myth of order, or 
fulfdlment, an affirmation that our being may move in its totality 
toward meaning" ("Knowledge" 245-246). 

In these latter quotations from "Knowledge and the Image of 
Man" and, just prior to these, in the pastiche of quotations drawn 
from various interviews with Warren conducted over the years, we 
can see that Warren feels there is a vital connection between writing 
and life. As he said in 1956 during the Fugitives' Reunion at 
Vanderbilt University, the process of writing a work of literature "is 
clearly something that refers to all of your living in indirect and 
complicated ways" (16). 

The Mind's Eye 13 

Mark Daniel Miller 

However, it is also clearly something separate Irom living and 
something that dashes with living, if we are to judge by still other 
comments by Warren. For instance, in the interview with David 
Farrell in which he says that poetry is "a way of existing meaningfully 
as much of your time as possible," Warren adds, as a son of sarcastic 
punchline, "And that's never much" {Talking 370). It is never much 
because, as Warren says at the end of the Mariner essay, ". . . we 
conduct most of our living . . . fon] the superficial level" (Pure 
Imagination" 272) — on the level of bills, dishes, household trash, 
laundry, housecleaning, sleep, and the like; on the level, that is, of 
practical and, even, animal necessity. (This is a list, by the way, of all 
the things I ignored while I was writing this paper.) Obviously, the 
idea of entirely eschewing this sort of life and of letting the imagina- 
tion entirely take the place of literal living is absurd. However, even 
the tendency to do that — which is the tendency of the writer — could 
obviously cause conflicts in, say, a marriage in which the spouse of 
the writer is content to live at a more superficial level. But even if the 
spouse wishes to live significantly in some other way — Warren is 
always careful to say that writing is a way ol living significantly, with 
the clear implication that there are, indeed, other ways — then there 
may be conflict. Suppose the spouse's idea of living significantly is to 
be active in some large community, for instance; this need may clash 
with the writer's need to be alone. Even if the spouse is generally 
tolerant of the writer's estranging reveries, there may be times — 
during a given lunch hour, for instance — when he or she grows 
weary of a spouse "completely absent from whatever is going on" 
around them. 

In the interview with Sale conducted in 1969, Warren offers the 
following anecdote to illustrate the fact that, if you want to be a 
writer and a partner, you must face, as Warren puts it, "the problem 
ol what kind of life you can subject other people to": 

I know a young man — he's not young any longer — who 
shall be nameless. An extraordinary, talented writer, he 
married the wrong girl. Well, he's had a great success at life. 
But I know him well, and he sat there and told me, "I just 
can't do it. It's killing her. She's gonna leave me. I know it. 
It's gonna happen. She can't take it." She married a man 
when he was in a military uniform and was a heroic young 
man. And suddenly he put on those old clothes and locked 

14 The Mind's Eye 

Mark Dank! Miller 

the door to write. It was different, and she couldn't take it. 
So he quit writing and has made a great success of another 
kind of life. {Talking 123) 

In his second wife, author Eleanor Clark, Warren himself found a 
woman who not only understood his passion, hut also nurtured it. He 
was not so fortunate in his first wife. 

Having introduced the subject, I now want to look more closely 
at the particulars of Warren's life, at the origin of his desire to be a 
writer and at his early experience of the life/art conflict. However, I 
should point out that, though we have Warren's work and, to some 
degree, the observations of others to use as evidence, our conclusions 
will in part be speculations. For we are looking here at the secret 
wellsprings of action, at obscure trains of psychic cause and effect: 
things that remained mysterious even to Warren himself. What 
seems generally to be true, however, is that Warren remained 
troubled by certain aspects of being a writer well into his late years 
and that this fact accounts for some of the darkness in his work. 

In a New York Times Book Review article published four years before 
his death and entitled "'Poetry is a Kind of Unconscious Autobiogra- 
phy,'" Warren describes a practice he learned as a boy, before he 
began to write poetry, which later "became important to me," he says, 
"as a gateway to poetry," His best childhood friend, Kent Greenfield, 
was "a natural born woodsman" who, in the woods, "had the strange 
habit of suddenly stopping stock stilt, one foot almost poised, as he 
seemed to listen for every sound or stared at some object — some tree 
or whatever. He seemed to sink for a moment into the world around 
him. I so admired his skills," Warren confesses, "that I unconsciously 
began to imitate him." Warren could practice these skills during, as 
he puts it, "my country summers at my bookish old grandfather's 
remote farm." And when he began writing poetry during college, he 
found some of it "coming out of" these summers (""Unconscious 
Autobiography'" 9). 

But the art of stillness he had learned from Kent Greenfield went 
deeper than that. Later in the New York Times Book Review article, 
Warren describes again the "new way of seeing things" that ended the 
ten-year drought of short poems during the late forties and early 
fifties. The language of his description will sound familiar to us. The 
poems, he says, were 

a different kind, of the glittering present and of, often, vivid 

The Mind's Eye 15 

Mark Daniel Miller 

moments of the past newly discovered. . . . [!]n poem after 
poem an action or event seemed at the core, as having 
happened, or being about to happen. Or a scene that 
demanded an action, or a recoilection that stirred something 
vital. There was no pattern in the way in which such things 
happened, but always with a sense of new expectation, of 
significance about to be revealed. {""Unconscious Autobiog- 
raphy'" 10) 

"Significance about to be revealed." This, a; we have seen, is the lure 
and promise of the writer's creative reverie, and it is also what 
reminded Warren, when he first began trying to write poetry in 
coflege, of the art of stillness he had learned from Kent and of the 
solitude of his grandfather's farm. "... 1 sensed," he says, 

some continuity between the need to be alone, with what 
was in your head — or wasn't there yet — and the aloncness 
of woods and canehrakes oi my grandfather's farm years 
before, when diving deep, or standing in breathiess silence 
to stare at something — as rny old friend had done in the 
woods. What you stared at now was, however, the empty 
space on a sheet ol paper which the right word would not 
come to fill. ("'Unconscious Autobiography'" 9) 

Later, after discovering the new way to write poetry which ended the 
drought, Warren noted thai 

. . . the process, more than once, suggested some connection 
with the old woodland and canebrake wanderings of 
childhood or youth, or later years in foreign places, and the 
sudden instinctive motionlessness that might come as 1 
idiotically stared at whatever it happened to be, tree or 
stone or bird rising. Whatever it was, it, for a moment 
anyway, would seem a strange event, blindly significant. 
('"Unconscious Autobiography'" 10) 

"... 1 feel an immanence of meaning in things," Warren says in the 
interview with Stitt (Talking 243), the a in immanence clearly inter- 
changeable with an i; and whether these things are the "absent 
things" ol the writer's reverie or the "glittering present" things or the 
writer's here and now. Warren stops before them and stands stock 
still, poised for the apocalypse of meaning, 

The stance or attitude assumed by the speaker in any number of 

16 The Mind's Eye 

Mark Daniel Miller 

Warren's poems, this attentive stillness may be said to betoken an 
openness to experience, the sort of openness which Warren says is a 
quality of writing. However, because it is a stillness, a stoppage, it is 
also a sort of death. This duality is apparent in the term Warren 
himself used to describe this altitude: "blankness" (Talking 122. 176). 
The editors of Talking with Robert Venn Warren suggest that this blank- 
ness is like John Keats's "negative capability": a selfless receptivity to 
experience (Talking 176; 402, n. 23). However, "blankness" may also 
be emptiness or, as Warren puts it in the New York Times Book Review 
article, a "deprivation" and a "void." In that piece. Warren says the 
following about his earlier efforts at becoming a writer, shortly after 
his matriculation at Vanderbill University: 

There were, of course, a number of students of similar 
tastes and ambitions, and all the arguments were exciting. 
But sometimes I found it a lonely life, trying to write. It 
seemed to set one apart from life, to be, as it were, a son of 
mystic deprivation, to create what can only be described as a 
psychic void that needed to be filled. Sometimes, paradoxi- 
cally, it was as though the only way to be not lonely was to 
be alone. ("'Unconscious Autobiography'" 9) 

Why did Warren feel this way about trying to write? We must turn to 
biography for help, but the evidence is contradictory, as we might 

In the Spring of 192 i, when he was just sixteen, Warren certainly 
did not dream of being a poet some day. Rather, lie dreamed of being 
"admiral of the Pacific Fleet," as he would put it in a 1982 interview 
(Talking 378). and to that end, he had managed to obtain an appoint- 
ment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Then, one 
"balmy afternoon" as he lay on the grass on the other side of a high 
hedge near his house, his dream of being a naval officer was shat- 
tered: his younger brother, Thomas, was throwing pieces of coal from 
the driveway over the high hedge, and one of them "landed directly 
on bis brother's left eye, knocking him unconscious." Warren would 
eventually lose that eye, and he immediately lost his appointment to 
Annapolis, In the Fall, he enrolled at Vanderbill University in Nash- 
ville, "to become, he thought, a chemical engineer" (Blotner 30). 
There, his composition teacher, John Crowe Ransom, recognized his 
talent and encouraged it. Soon, Warren was a member of the Fugi- 
tive group and had taken up poetry in earnest. 

The Mind's Eye 17 

Mark Daniel Miller 

Writing poetry, then — he had not yet taken up fiction — was in 
one sense Warren's attempt to fill the "psychic void" left when his 
dreams of a naval career were shattered. It was a compensation of 
sorts for that "deprivation" and for the other deprivation — the 
blindness of the left eye — which had led to it. 

But it was also, particularly in these early years, an "^escape,"" as 
Warren would put it in a letter of this time to Alien Tate (Blotner 45). 
It was a "refuge." Here is how Warren explains it in an interview 
with Farrell published in 1982. I quote at length: 

. . . [T]hat first period of poetry . . . was so different from 
what I had set my life up to be; I mean, being a naval officer 
and all of that, But the poetry became so extraordinarily 
important to me. The reading of it and the trying to write it 
became simply matters of life and death to me. . . . This real 
sort of passion I got for poetry may have been due in large 
part to my fear of going blind at that time. I had been told 
that the injury to the first eye somehow would affect the 
other eye, you see . . . you could get sympathetic blindness. 
So I was watching for this and for a while using glasses on 
the other eye to protect it. And I got fits of depression 
during that period. I felt myself going blind. I was sort of, 
you know, watching, watching, watching . . . always aware 
of it. And my refuge became in a way the study of poetry 
and the writing of poetry. (Talking 363) 

Tt was apparently not enough of a refuge, however, for it was during 
this time that Warren attempted suicide. 

Suicide, of course, is the ultimate blankness, and the means by 
which Warren attempted his — lying on his back in bed with a chloro- 
form-soaked towel over his face — seems to connect it with that 
cffacement of self which is a part of the creative reverie. In "Warren 
Lying Down," a paper presented on April 21, 1 995, at the Filth 
Annual Meeting of The Robert Penn Warren Circle in Bowling Green, 
Kentucky, Fred Waage pointed out that there are not only many 
instances of the standing reverie in Warren's poetry, there are also a 
number of instances of what Waage called the "recumbent reverie." 
He also observed that the accident which took Warren's left eye was 
an instance of such a "recumbent reverie interrupted by gratuitous 
violence." The lesson of that life-altering incident must have been 
abundantly clear to Warren: we are all, at all times, thus open or 

18 The Mind's Eye 

Mark Dank! Miller 

vulnerable to the world of contingency or accident. 

In another instance of "recumbent reverie," this one in the poem 
"The Leaf" from the "Island of Summer" sequence in the volume 
Incarnations, the speaker opens himself to the world only to find 
"exacerbation" and arid disappointment: 

... On that 
High place of stone I have lain down, the sun 
Beat, the small exacerbation 

Of dry bones was what my back, shirtless and bare, 
knew. . . . 

. ..I 

Have opened my mouth to the wind of the world like wine, 
1 wanted 

To taste what the world is, wind dried up 

The live saliva of my tongue, my tongue 
Was like a dry leaf in my mouth. (25-26) 

Here, htankness — or openness — is met with blankness: with dryness 
and death. 

But the most disturbing instance of the "recumbent reverie" in 
Warren's work occurs in Audubon, in the scene where the protagonist 
is lying in the cabin of the frontier woman, knows she is about to 
murder him for his gold watch, and yet cannot bring himself to leap 
up and defend himself. He "knows," we are told, that "He has 
entered the dark hovel / In the forest where the trees have eyes," in 
"the tale / They told him when he was a child" and "the dream he 
had in childhood but never / Knew the end of, only / The scream" 
(11). He knows, too. 

What he must do, do soon, and therefore 
Does not understand why now a lassitude 
Sweetens his limbs, or why, even in this moment 
Of fear — or is it fear? — the saliva 
In his mouth tastes sweet. 

"Now, now!" the voice in his head cries out, but 
Everything seems far away, and small. 

He cannot think what guilt unmans him, or 

Why he should find the punishment so precious. (12) 

The Mind's Eye 19 

Mark Daniel Miller 

"I yearn for significance," Warren says in a i976 interview with Bill 
Moyers (Talking 214), and here is either the ultimate significance or, 
possibly, the gateway to ultimate significance: death — the end ol the 
story, or at least the end of this story. When the travelers burst in and 
save Audubon, he is, at one level, disappointed. "He thinks / That 
now he will never know the dream's ending" and later asks, "'What 
has been denied me?'" (13,17) 

In one sense, this episode is just another dramatization of a 
familiar Warren theme: the terrible pull of "the dream," the idea, the 
ideal, the promise of fulfillment. The frontier woman has her dream, 
too — Audubon's gold watch — and she is willing to commit murder to 
hold it in her hand. Audubon, for his part, wants to paint all the 
birds of North America and is willing to kill them to do that. But he is 
also an artist and, like Warren, a "yearner" (Talking 21 J, 243. 382). so 
he cherishes "the dream / Of a season past all seasons" (29). The 
stunning image of him which appears in the section entitled "Love 
and Knowledge" portrays him as scientist, artist, and priest all rolled 
into one: "Over a body held in his hand, his head was bowed low, / 
But not in grief" (30). The poem is thus about what the artist — 
Audubon and Warren — and, indeed, what any person is willing to do 
or to sacrifice in order to pursue his or her passion; for, as the opening 
lines of the book ask, "... what / Is man but his passion?" (3) 
Audubon is willing to forego riches, to be alone a lot, to be much 
away from his beloved wife Lucy, 

And Warren? Well, we know his attitude from yet. another 
"recumbent reverie" poem, "American Portrait: Old Style," the first 
poem in 1978's Puhtzer-Prize-winning volume. Now and Then. In the 
penultimate section of that poem, the speaker — Warren — lies down in 
the slight depression of an unmarked grave which he and "K" — Kent 
Greenfield — had used as a "trench" during their childhood games of 
warfare many years earlier. Lying in the trench, the speaker wonders 
"What it would be like to die, / . . . And know yourself dead lying 
under / The infinite motion of sky." Here is the concluding section: 

But why should I lie here longer? 
1 am not dead yet, though in years, 
And the world's way is yet long to go. 
And I love the world even in my anger, 
And lo've is a hard thing to outgrow. (7) 

20 The Mind's Eye 

Mark Dame! Miller 

Then, as reported by Blotner, there are Warren's words to doctor and 
friend Tom Byrne, during one of their talks in the days just prior to 
Warren's death, "When Tom told Warren he was awed by what he 
had accomplished," according to Blotner, "[Warren] replied, "It's 
nothing. What counts are family and friends'" (Blotner 497). 

But of course, writing did matter to Warren, and he did some- 
times discount family and friends. We remember his statement in the 
interview with Richard B. Sale, the statement I always read to the 
students in my poetry-writing class: 

If anybody's going to be a writer, he's got to be able to say, 
"This has got to come first, to write has to come first." . . . 
You've got to . . . steal time from your wife, or somebody, 
you sec. The time's got to come from somewhere. (Talking 

In this same interview, Warren also says: 

... I think that everybody who means to be a writer should 
go through a short period, anyway, where he does not have 
everything done for him, by a foundation or something else. 
Where he actually has to sulfcr a little bit, just a little bit, 
mind you, just enough to know what it's like to steal the 
time to give up something, in some way. And to offend 
wife or child or mother or father or best friend. Just to do 
what he wants to do. Just to know this: that he is able to 
make this reservation in life. To know how to achieve this 
inner privacy, (Talking 122) 

Warren is not. being entirely sarcastic here; and where he is not, he is 
clearly speaking from painful experience. 

In light of comments such as these, one wonders about Warren's 
relationship with his first wife, Cinina. She was menially ill and 
alcoholic, so even if Warren had not been a writer, it would not be 
too surprising to learn that he felt tremendous guilt over her. But as 
he stole time from her and therefore offended her — which would 
have been inevitable since she was jealous and envious of his suc- 
cess — his guilt must have been compounded. His relationship with 
her must also have taught him something about salvation. During 
the drought period, he wrote the word which was salvation, and yet 
couldn't quite save himself — not only because he was caught in the 
predicament of the writer as we have now been defining it for a 

the Mind's Bye 2\ 

Murk Dank! Miller 

number of pages, but also because he was still married to Cinina. 
True, writing may have helped him make up his mind to divorce her, 
but he would have remained miserable had he not acted And then, 
he was fortunate to meet Eleanor Clark. In the Mariner essay, Warren 
makes the following statement: "What A. E. Powell, in The Romantic 
Theory of Poetry, says of Wordsworth, that he lived his philosophy long 
before he phrased it, is equally true of Coleridge . . * ("Pure Imagina- 
tion" 226). What we could say of Warren is the opposite; he phrased 
his philosophy before he lived it. The philosophy appears in the two 
great masterpieces of the drought period. All the King 's Men and 
Brother to Dragons. However, joy does not become an important part of 
Warren's works until he has divorced Cinina and married Eleanor. 
Then, he can say, as he says in Brother to Dragons, "... I have made 
new acquaintance with the nature of joy" (209). And it is not writing 
that brings about this joy; it is the same force that flung a piece of coal 
into Warren's left eye now steering Eleanor into his ken. 

Yet another guilt Warren could riot write his way out of was the 
guilt he felt for having stolen, in a sense, his own father's dream of 
being a poet. Mariner- wise, he told and re-told the story of how, as a 
boy, he found a vanity publication with some of his father's poems in 
it and how, when he confronted him with it, his father wordlessly 
took ii from him and he never saw it again. As Blotner says, summa- 
rizing this aspect of Warren's obsession with the father, ". . . even 
near the end of his Life he would record emphatically his strange 
sense of guilt, as a successful poet, for having somehow appropriated 
the vocation his lather had vainly cherished . . ." (Blotner 207). 
Every success only compounded his guilt. 

In the end, what Warren says in the Mariner essay of Wordsworth 
also applies to Warren himself: "The imagination was for him a 
healing power, . . . [but] he did know something of the Mistress'" 
associated with its exercise. In fact, like the Ancient Mariner and his 
creator Coleridge, Warren knew the ""agony"' of creation and was 
much more the poete maudit than Wordsworth ( "Pure Imagination" 
260). Consider the testimony of literary agent Helen Strauss, for 
instance, who says that, with Warren, ". . . "each work involved a 
protracted dredging of the soul and ruthless self-questioning'" which 
resulted in a ""chaotic agony' of creation" (Blotner 237). Or simply 
consider the works themselves. They are clearly the creations of an 
artist for whom writing, particularly poetry, was not just, as Warren 
says, "a parlor trick even in its most modest reaches." Rather, they 

22 The Mind's Eye 

Mark Daniel Miller 

are the creations of an artist tor whom the act of writing was "bread 
and meat" (Talking 16, 131). 

Works Cited 

Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random 
House, 1997, 

Strauss, Helen M. A Talent for Luck: An Autobiography. New York: 

Random House, 1979. Quoted in Blotner. 
Waage, Fred. "Warren Lying Down." Fifth Annual Meeting of the 

Robert Perm Warren Circle, Bowling Green, Kentucky, 21 April 


Warren, Robert Penn. Audubon: A Vision. New York: Random House, 

Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices. New York: Random 
House, 1953. 

- - - . Homage to Theodore Dreiser: On the Centennial of His Birth. New 
York: Random House, 1971. 

Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968. New York: Random House, 1968. 

"Knowledge and the Image of Man." In Robert Penn Warren: A 

Collection of Critical Essays. Ed, John Lewis Longley, Jr. New 
York: New York UP, 1965. 237-246. 

Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978. New York: Random House,1978. 

"A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading." In 

Selected Essays, pp. 198-305. 
— . "Poetry Is a Kind of Unconscious Autobiography," New York 

Times Book Review 12 May 1985: 9-10. 
-T-. "Pure and Impure Poetry." In Selected Essays, pp. 3-31. 

Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 195S. 
Watkins, Floyd C, John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks, cds. 

Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens; University of Georgia 

Press, t990. (Contains detailed bibliographic information on each 

of the individual interviews it includes.) 
Wordsworth, William. Selected Poems and Prefaces. Ed. Jack Stillinger. 

Riverside Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. 
Yeats, William Butler, "Adam's Curse," The Collected Poems ofW.B. 

Yeats. 1933; New York: Macmillan. 1974. 78-79. 

The Mind's Eye 23 

The Portrait 



stopped for the hitchhiker on a high stretch of freeway just north 
of Tucson. It was a had place to stop, but it was raining, the slow, 
persistent winter rain which can, in a good year, settle over the 
desert. Once Arizona was only a map, a place you had to drive 
through to get. some place eke. But now, having lived and worked in 
the desert, I felt at home with the expanse, the fading mountain 
ridges, and the thin vegetation: ocotillo, cholla, greasewood, 
paloverde. As I drove, I was lulled by the inclines and declines, 
noticeable more in the slight variations in the speed of my '53 Ply- 
mouth than in actual visual perceptions — as if my speedometer 
contained the shifting bubble of a surveyor's transit. 

The hitchhiker ran up by my car and looked in. Thin, a little over 
five feet, he had a weathered face, protruding ears and a slight chin. 
Water dripped from short-cropped hair onto his forehead. He wore a 
grey jacket and jeans. His dark eyes searched mine lor a moment, 
then he opened the door and got in. 

"Thanks," he said. 

"No good walking in the rain," I offered, switching open the 
heater vent. 

"That's right." 

"Where are you headed?" 

"Yuma. You go to Yuma?" 


"Good," he said, then, "My name is George. My Indian name is 
Bull Coming." 

"Benjamin;" I responded, smiling at the image of his name. 
"Benjamin," he said, sounding my name. 

24 The Mind's Eye 

Ben Jacques 

We drove on. The hood of my car was a pale shiny blue, match- 
ing the distant mountains which disappeared into the cloud layer. 
The closer hills held a faint tinge of green. Along the highway and in 
the median scattered bright yellow bits of desert marigolds. A thin 
spring grass was jusc shooting up beside the blue asphalt. 

"Live ill Yuma?" I asked. 

"I'm a sign painter. I'm going to Yuma to paint signs for a while. 
I have my brushes in my bag." He patted the canvas bag at his feet. 
"I paint for stores. I paint pictures, too." 

George talked animatedly of his art, lifting his right hand and 
fingers and moving them in rapid strokes as he talked. Sitting back 
against the high, worn seat, he lined up his eyes behind his imaginary 
brush. "That's how I paint," he grinned. 

At Picacho Peak we stopped for coffee. In the cafe the waitress 
filed her nails behind the register. Western paintings and artifacts 
were hung on the walls. We slipped into a booth by the window. 
The waitress brought us coffee. She avoided looking at George. 

George looked at the artwork on the walls. "I sold a painting 
once to Governor Montoya," he said. "He came to a fair where I had 
my pictures. He has it in his house." 

I stirred my coffee and relaxed. I felt in no hurry. The cafe was 
warm and dry and we could hear the trucks on the wet pavement 
outside. I got up and dropped a quarter in the juke box. 

"I'm going to San Diego for a week," T said. "Then I'm coming 
back to go to the University in Tucson." As I said this, I felt the return 
of an uneasiness. I wasn't sure what I really wanted to do. I had 
been out of school for several years. 

. George said, "I went to the University of New Mexico in Albu- 
querque, But I didn't like it much, My sister said to me, 'Go to 
school. There is money for Indians who want to go to school.' So I 
went and I got a room. But I didn't like it. The teachers didn't care 
about what I liked. They said, paint this, paint that." He talked softly. 
"I got kicked out for going to class drunk. I couldn't help it. I would 
walk on that big campus and nobody would talk to me. Some 
Christian students got me to come to their group. They told me to 
pray to Jesus when I felt lonely. I would go to my room and pray to 
Jesus. Then I would drink." 

I turned my eyes away from George and looked at the rain on the 
window, rivulets of water finding their way down the glass, blurring 
the desert beyond. 

The Mind's Eye 25 

Ben Jacques 

I paid and we got back in the car. 

"Now it's better," he said. "Now I can walk out in this beautiful 
world and I don't feel so lonely. Sometimes I walk all the way 
between towns. I am a Navajo. I can paint," George again pretended 
he was making brush strokes. 

We rode in quiet for a long while. 

The rain stopped and the clouds lifted so you couid see the distant 
mountains shifting their shoulders slowly as we moved. Checking my 
gauges, I caught sight of the tiny, gold, plastic emblem set in the 
horn-cap of my steering wheel: the Mayflower on its way to a new 

At Giia Bend 1 stopped for gas, George went inside. 1 filled the 
tank and checked the water and oil. When I went in to pay, I 
watched George pay for a pint of Thunderbird and drop it inside his 

After we had driven a few miles, George look the green bottle 
from his jacket. Then he slumped down on the seat until his head 
was below the level of the window. He held the bottle up and drank 
it in one pouring without taking swallows. Then he sat up again, 
capped the bottle and put it in his bag. He took out a sketch pad and 

"Now I will draw you a picture;" he said. 

He propped the sketch pad against his knees. His lines were dark 
and steady. When he finished, he signed his name, Bull Coming. 
Then he carefully tore the sheet from the pad and handed it to me. 
Glancing at it as I drove, 1 complimented him and thanked him. He 
sat back and closed his eyes. 

I was lost in my thoughts when George started singing. It came 
up in his throat and head, almost inaudible, then increased until he 
was singing without constraint. The sounds were a flowing of high 

"That is a Navajo song we sing at the camps. My father taught 
me. Should I sing another?" 

As he sang, I drove without conscious effort, the car slowing in its 
long line on the immense land. I sensed in the sounds and in the 
cloud-subdued earth an unspoken familiarity, I felt I was approach- 
ing a point, not of return, but from which f could see openings in the 
forms of life, die spaces within. Looking into these spaces, I felt 

26 The Mind's Eye 

Ben Jacques 

acutely lonely. But I also sensed a refuge. I would recognize this 
feeling later in its absence, as I moved among men sophisticated and 
subtle, men who passed without shaking hands, who rarely looked 
you in the eye. 

Then we were over the last rise and down into the irrigated valley 
of the Rio Colorado. We passed a runway and a strip of motels. 
Before we reached the river, George touched my arm lightly with his 

"Here is good," he said. 

I stopped. The Navajo got out, closed the door softly, and with a 
slow composure walked down a side street. 

Twenty-five years have passed. Today, going through my old 
notebooks, I found the drawing George Bull Coming made for me. It's 
a profile of a warrior: high cheek bones and forehead, sharply-lined 
eyes, strong nose, defiant chin. Long hair is tied in an ornamental 
band. Two feather tips fall forward on one side. 

Now I can see what I couldn't see before, that it's a self-portrait. 
A self-portrait born of rain and wine. 

The Mind's Eye 27 

William Wordsworth's 
"A Slumber Did My 
Spirit Seal": A 
Folklorist's View. 


A slumber did my spirit seal 

I had no human fears 

She seem'd a thing that could not feel 

The touch of earthly years 

No motion has she now, no force 
She neither hears nor sees 
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course 
With rocks and stones and trees 


V T illiam Wordsworth wrote this little poem while he was in 
exile from his poet, friends, freezing in a poorly heated house in 
Goslar, Germany during one of the coldest winters of the century 
(Reed 45, 58). The meaning of this poem to a folklorist depends on 
the circumstances of its performance within a particular communica- 
tive community, Some communities included Wordsworth, and so 
part IT of this paper includes more information about him, The two 
sections of the paper that follow arc fulkloristic interpretations of the 
poem as Wordsworth performed it in each of two different communi- 
cative contexts: when he entitled it "Epitaph" at the time of its 

28 The Mind's Eye 

Mary Ellen Cohant 

composition, and when he recast it as a "Poem of the Imagination" 
for the 1815 edition of Ins collected poems. 

Some communicative communities in which this poem is per- 
formed, however, tend not to count Wordsworth as one of their 
numbers, and are divided about considering biographical details of 
Wordsworth's life in their consideration of his poem. One of these 
groups, a network of contemporary literary critics, is considered in 
part f and in the conclusion of this paper, where some implications of 
folklore theory lor literary practice are considered. 

I. The Critics 

Ever since EW. Bateson and Clcanth Brooks published contradic- 
tory theses about the meaning of "A slumber did my spirit seal," this 
poem has served as a proving ground for new literary theories. In the 
last half century, such luminaries as Karl Kroeber, E.D. Hirsch, Francis 
Ferguson, Michael Riffaterre, Paul de Man, and Geoffrey Hartman 
have argued for different interpretations of the poem. By 1982, 
Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels were using this poem to 
declare all theory dead: since then, Gerald Graff has used it to declare 
that we must accept indeterminacy as its ultimate meaning, only to 
have Brian Caraher write a two-hundred-and-seventy page book 
developing a new interpretation of the poem as a "Lucy poem." (And 
then Mark Jones wrote a book proving that there is no such thing as 
a "Lucy poem.") 

The central problem is the tension, first, between the New Critical 
idea that the precise meaning of the poem can be determined by a 
careful examination of the poem itself, and, second, the fact that no 
one can agree on anyone else's precise meaning. Graff's conciliatory 
notion that the difference between careful interpretations of the 
poem is itself an interpretation has proved unsatisfying. Critics now 
say things such as "The indeterminate circumstances ol 'A slumber 
did my spirit seal' are a characteristic feature of Wordsworth's moder- 
nity; we work against the poems if we try to unravel them at the 
expense of responding to the 'feeling therein developed'" (Williams 
103). Yet how can we respond to the feeling therein developed if we 
can't figure out what it is? How are we supposed to feel about a 
"sealed" spirit, the "human" fears, or the seemingly feminine "thing"? 
Why does a poet who professes to love the speech of common folk 

The MindS Eye 29 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

choose to use the seemingly pretentious term "diurnal"? How are we 
supposed to feel about this "she" being rolled around inside the 
earth? There is an exclamation point, so it must be a strong feeling — 
but what is it? 

Folklorists would want an answer to this question, nut not the 
one "right" answer. Rather, we are interested in how this poem has 
meaning as expressive culture within a particular speech community, 
a community much smaller than the sorts of communities usually 
inferred in literary criticism. Instead, we would ask about particular 
cases in which an individual took responsibility for performing this 
poem for a community of people small enough so that face-to-face 
interaction would be possible. 

Given that literary critics might qualify as such a community 
these days, I will discuss some of the performances of the poem they 
have enacted, 

A prime "informant" for our investigations into norms for creat- 
ing meaning when the poem is performed in the literary community 
would be Jonathan Culler. Culler has served in the past as a guru of 
literary theory, explaining every thinker from Levi Strauss to Derrida 
to his community. When he spoke recently to a gathering of literary 
critics at Harvard, Culler said that we need to have some kind of 
theory of interpretation in order to understand the imptications of 
such things as constitutions and laws and sexual harassment, for 
example, but we have none (1997). He said that the strongest and 
most recent contender for evaluating meaning in texts, "cultural 
studies," has splintered into interest groups. These groups emphasize 
such things as queer studies, postcolonial studies, or race theory, and 
tend to lose their focus on texts while negotiating the impossible 
tangles of material that make up cultural contexts. 

Literary critics are not used to making their way through endless 
cultural context. Yet, if the meaning of the text is determined by its 
enactment in performance, we can limit our attention to the conven- 
tions about communication relevant in the communicative commu- 
nity for whom that text is performed. (This is what folklorists do.) 
Furthermore, folklorists have borrowed from sociolinguislic theory 
ways to figure out what few conventions of making meaning are 
most important in a particular context. This method is outlined at 
length by Dell Hymes in his Foundations of SotioUngitistks, but for our 
purposes it is only important to know that it is a kind of general 

30 The Mind's Eye 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

hermeneutics of how to take local hermeneutics into account. In 
other words, it is a method for deciding which of the following 
aspects of communication are most important in a particular case: the 
setting of the performance, the persons involved, the performance 
event itself, the function of the performance, the emotional key 
involved, the instrumentalities of words, sounds, or other artistic 
means employed, the norms of interpreting this sort of performance, 
and its genre. In this case, given the critics' fifty year preoccupation 
with the tone of this poem, it is clear that the key of the poem is 
important in their communicative community: in addition, the 
general confusion as to the generic identity of this poem shows that is 
also important. 

Since literary critics tend either to defer to the author's inten- 
tions, or to refer derisively to the fact that other critics foolishly defer 
to the author's "intentions," I am going to begin by discussing the 
meaning of the poem in the context of its composition, when 
Wordsworth called it an epitaph, in the context of the life of its 
author and immediate audience, William Wordswonh. 

Folklorists, I should warn you, are not afraid of committing "the 
intentional fallacy," It is partly because we believe we cannot know 
the depths of Wordsworth's unconsciousness, much less his uncon- 
scious intentions, any more than we can entirely know our own, and 
so we limit our scope in biography. (In addition, particularly in the 
past thirty years, we have taken to sharing our biographies with tire 
subjects of our work while we are living with them and their friends: 
this also has given us a tradition of caution.) 

We are particularly interested in the public evidence of the way 
performers learn and use and change conventions to suit their 
purposes, but only insofar as they are successful in teaching their 
audiences to accept these new practices. We would therefore con- 
sider including Wordsworth's communicated intentions about the 
meaning of his work, intentions expressed in his Preface to the lyrical 
Ballads, and in letters to members of his artistic community, if 
Wordsworth's communicative community showed signs of accepting 
these ideas. (And they did.) 

In this case, Wordsworth's writings about his art reveal an empha- 
sis on emotions similar to that of the literary critics of our time quoted 
above, and of the poetry readers of his time who were caught up in 
the celebration of sentiment sometimes called "a cult of sensibility," 

The Mind's Eye 31 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

Wordsworth, for example, in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, writes 
that "the feeling therein [that is, in the poems] developed gives 
importance to the action and situation, and not the action and 
situation to the feeling" (73). In addition, just before Wordsworth 
wrote "A slumber did my spirit seal" in Germany, he wrote that what 
he wanted to learn most about the German language was the unique 
set of emotions with which the language is infused: he wanted to 
enter a state of mind in which "the several German idioms and 
phrases without any thought or considerations should immediately 
excite feelings analogous to those which are excited in the breasts of 
the natives" (de Selincourt 219). 

Wordsworth's concerns match current anthropological theories 
about feelings, which find that ail complex emotions arc cultural 
accomplishments, not natural endowments. Catherine Lutz, lor 
example, characterizes emotions not as "unmediated psychobiological 
events" but as "cultural constructions made out of the raw materials 
of historically specific social experiences, received language categories 
and speech traditions, and the potentials of the human body" (210). 

II. William Wordsworth, Architect of Peeling 

Wordsworth did not succeed in learning German idioms and 
feelings in Goslar during that cold winter of 1798. People were 
suspicious of the foreigner and his sister, the Wordsworths could not 
afford to entertain, and it was usually too cold to go outside. William 
and Dorothy had reason to shun the cold: their mother, Ann, had 
died of pneumonia when William and Dorothy were just eight and 
seven years old, after she slept in a cold, damp room while on a visit 
to London. A few years later, the children's father, John, died of 
exposure, while travelling on business for his boss, the much despised 
politician and landlord, James Lowther, after losing his way in a mist 
on a place called Cold Fell John's death left the five Wordsworth 
children penniless, since Lowther owed four years's worth of back 
wages to William's father, but never chose to pay them. 

Once orphaned, ironically enough, William and Dorothy experi- 
enced some of the happiest years of their fives. They were sent away 
to school in the Lake District, where they lived with a kindly country 
woman, and their teacher encouraged them to take long walks and to 
write poetry. During this time, they became acquainted with ancient 

32 The Mind s Eye 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

Celtic poetry which was all the rage; particularly James MacPherson's 
Ossian, a set of Fenian lays that dated from medieval Scotland and 
Ireland. These included many nature poems critical of Christianity, 
which inspired both Wordsworth's nature poetry, and his famous 
"half -atheism" (Kinsella 41 and Kinsella, n.p.). 

Four years later, Wordsworth's uncle separated the pair, and sent 
William off to University, where William was supposed to prepare to 
become a Cambridge clerk. William generally ignored the studies 
prescribed for him, and spent his time reading popular literature and 
planning a walking tour of the Alps, which he took, on borrowed 
money, during the summer of 1791. Upon graduation, he borrowed 
some more money and went back to France, which, two years after 
the storming of the Bastille, was alive with plans for implementing a 
new republican order. 

Wordsworth loved politics: his uncle's hatred of Lowther had 
schooled Wordsworth in factionalism from an early age. Now, he fell 
in with the moderate Catholics, and fell in love with one of them: a 
twenty-four year old woman named Annette Vallon. When Annette 
became pregnant with his child, Wordsworth offered his services to 
the Girondins, a moderate faction ranged against the anti-clerical 
Robespierre. Finally, around the time of the birth of his daughter, 
Ann-Caroline Vallon in December of 1792, as Robespiere systemati- 
cally executed the defeated Girondins, and Wordsworth ran out of 
money, the young man retreated back to England. 

Once there, Wordsworth's status as an unmarried father precluded 
him from the ministry, and his history as a defender of regicide barred 
him from political life, but his stories about France endeared him to 
his old friends. He found employment accompanying William Calvert 
to Northern Wales, and then took a job as companion to Calvert's 
brother, Raisley Calvert, who was dying of tuberculosis. Wordsworth 
took some time to write and publish poems about his travels and to 
make the acquaintance of the English radical. William Godwin, before 
he took another job as companion to a friend of Godwin's, Azariah 
Pinney, who was also dying of tuberculosis. Pinney left him a small 
inheritance when he died, which Wordsworth promptly lent to 
another young man who needed his help, Basil Montague, whose 
lover's death had left him the distressed and inept custodian of his 
own illegitimate son (also named Basil), then two years old. 
Montague arranged for William and Dorothy to live in his family's 

The Mind's Bye 33 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

country house in the Lake District rent-free, in exchange for caring 
for the little boy. 

There in Bristol, the three of them lived on the dribs and drabs of 
money returned to them by Montague, supplemented slightly by 
Dorothy's sewing and selling white linen shirts, and on William's 
hopes for his poetry. The poems and shirts being slow to sell, William 
took on Azariah Finney's son as a pupil, and taught him Greek and 
Latin, concentrating on the Roman epitaphs in classical collections, 
and then walking all over the countryside, looking at the epitaphs on 
English gravestones. They loved the long walks, and their little home: 
I imagine them as similar to an American back-to-nature family from 
the 1960s living on crafts and tutoring in the Vermont woods. {It was 
conventional at that time for unmarried sisters to live with their 
[married] brothers. Since Wordsworth was sort of married to 
Annette, the arrangement may not have seemed as strange to the 
radical brother and sister as it does to us and to their neighbors. Or 
perhaps there was incest; none of this is germane, however, to the 
performances of the poem considered here.) Before long, however, 
the pressure of the poetry writing, and/or the parenting of the 
toddler, or perhaps the cold of winter, led Wordsworth in 1 796 to 
have a nervous breakdown. Wordsworth was saved by Dorothy and 
then uplifted by a new acquaintance: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

Coleridge had been depressed himself, having planned to start a 
new society in America with a friend named Robert Southey, marry- 
ing the sister of Southey's wife for this purpose, but finding their 
plans for Utopian community as well as for Utopian marriages impos- 
sible to execute. Coleridge survived by patronage and by opium {I 
think of him as a Ken Keasey type), until he met Wordsworth, who 
shook him out of his torpor by telling him stories of the Alps and the 
Revolution. Coleridge brought Wordsworth up to live in his subver- 
sive poets' commune further upcountry, to the country cottages of 
Alfoxden and Nether Stowey, where they were joined by Southey, 
the poet Charles Lamb, and, fresh from imprisonment for treason, the 
radical republican John ThelwelL 

The friends discussed philosophy and folk music — especially the 
philosophy of the English epistemologist David Hartley and his 
forerunner. Bishop Berkeley. We know they discussed Spinoza 
because a clownish royal spy, hearing the discussion, reported that 
the poets were making fun of him by calling him "Spy Nosy." The 

54 The Mind's Eye 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

poets listened to ballads in kitchens and public houses as they were 
sung by ballad hawkers and country people in the lake district 
(Wordsworth Prelude, book 5, 207-210 and Friedman 271). They 
dreamed of taking the best of the folk an they found and transform- 
ing it into improved forms for a people's republic: that is, in 
Wordsworth's words, to "produce songs . . . supplanting partly the 
bad with flowers and useful herbs to take the place of weeds" (Fried- 
man 271). 

The friends supported each other's work, and prepared to publish 
a joint volume called Lyrical Ballads in 179S. Before their book came 
out, however, the Coleridges and the Words worths set out for Ger- 
many, Wordsworth said, in order to learn the German language, and 
make money translating German poetry. The real reason was perhaps 
because they were draft dodgers and radicals: they had to escape the 
draft as the Napoleonic wars developed, and they were in danger of 
being imprisoned on the basis of the reports of the aforementioned 

Coleridge loved Germany, and went to the University at Hamburg 
to study German philosophy. Wordsworth, however, couldn't afford 
to live in the city, and both his German and his philosophic back- 
ground were inferior, so he withdrew to Goslar, where the living was 
cheaper, dragging a copy of Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English 
Poetry, which contained several verses used as epitaphs, with him. 

And so heTe he was, once again in exile, in the cold, pressured to 
write poetry, hounded by depression and chills, and thinking only of 
home: "A plague on your languages, German and Norse," he wrote, 
"Let me hear the song of the kettle" (Reed 1 54-56). But he wrote, 
and he wrote: most of the poems for the second volume of Lyrical 
Ballads, including a poem that began "A slumber did my spirit seal." 
This is the first performance of the poem that I will subject to folkloric 
investigation, a performance designed primarily as an exploration of 
his own feelings, and only secondarily, for Dorothy Wordsworth and 
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

III. Epitaph 

The untitled poem we call "A slumber did my spirit seal" was 
originally entitled "Epitaph." Coleridge transcribed the poem with 
this title when he wrote it out for Thomas Poole, and. in another 

The Mind's, Eye 15 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

place, he praised it as a "Most sublime Epitaph" in a letter to 
Wordsworth (Bernhardt-Kabish 512). Before we discuss reasons why 
Wordsworth dropped this generic identification for the poem, we can 
begin by testing the poem against Wordsworth's own descriptions of 
the nature of epitaphs. 

In his work, "An Essay Upon Epitaphs," Wordsworth wrote that 
epitaphic inscriptions should, above all, be sincere; furthermore, they 
should "give to universally accepted truths a path and an expression 
which shall re -admit them into the soul like revelations of the 
moment" (61). These universally accepted truths included, he wrote, 
the notion that "some part of our nature is imperishable." 

In Weever's book Ancient Funeral Monuments, Wordsworth found a 
great source of conventional epitaphs expressing these sincere 
expressions of belief in the afterlife; beliefs that Wordsworth wished 
to recast in such a way as to enter the souls of his readers in a new 
way. Although most of these epitaphs are easily deciphered, the 
collection includes one epitaph as mysterious in its expression of 
belief, and in its tone, as "A slumber did my spirit seal:" 

Here lyeth wrapped in clay 
The body of William Wray 
I have no more to say. 

(Weever 410: Written by John Louekin for his 

apprentice in 1350.) 

In this case, we have a reference to death that uses the same 
burial motif found in Wordsworth's second stanza. The attitudes 
expressed here towards death and resurrection are, unfortunately, as 
unclear as those in Wordsworth's lines, "Roll'd round in earth's 
diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees." Wordsworth's 
expressed intention in writing epitaphs, however, was that they be a 
recasting of conventional beliefs. 

Most of the epitaphs recorded from country gravestones by 
Weever containing a burial motif more clearly express conventional 
Christian beliefs about death, burial, and the afterlife. The following 
epitaph is typical: 

Richard Nordell lyeth buryed here. 
Somtym of London Citizen and Drapier. 
And Margerie his wyf, or her progenie. 

36 The Mind's Eye 

Mary Ellen Cohan? 

Returned to erth and so sail ye. 

Of the earth we were made and formed 

And to the erth we bin returned 

Have yis in mynd and memory 

Ye yat liven lerneth to dy 

And beholdyth here yowr destine 

Such as ye arne sometym weren we. 

Ye sail be dyght in his array. 

Be ye nere so stout and gay. 

Therefor Prendys we you prey 

Make you redy for to dey 

Yat ye be no for sin atteynt 

At ye dey of Judgement. 

(Weever4I3, n.d.) 

As Mircea Eliade points out in The Myth of the Eternal Return, the 
pivotal lines, "of this erth we were made and formed/ And to the erth 
we bin returned," are an echo of Christ's words that were tradition- 
ally repeated by priests as they marked the sign of the cross with 
ashes on the foreheads of their parishioners each year. Ash Wednes- 
day began the forty days of Lent, during which Christians were 
encouraged to remember ritually Christ's death, and to contemplate 
their own. This contemplation was a mixture of solemnity and joy, 
since all knew that the forty days of Lent would culminate in Easter, 
when Christ rose from the dead. After a period on earth, Christ then 
was transported, hotly and soul, into heaven, an occurrence cel- 
ebrated on Ascension Sunday. Christians were taught to expect that 
they would share in the experience of Christ: they would pass from 
lives full of trials and cares into a passive death from which, if they 
had striven to be free from sin, they would rise, body and soul, on the 
Last Day. This expectation of rebirth was symbolized with eggs and 
llowers, whose cyclical transformations into Site from apparent death 
were commonly observed by the people. 

Another conventional symbol of rebirth was the turning of night 
into day and back again, as in the folfowing epitaphs from Weever's 

Like as the day his course doth consume, 
And the new morrow springth again as fast, 
So man and woman by Nature's costume, 

The Mind s Eye 

Mary Ellen Cohant 

this life to passe at last in earth are cast. 
In joy and sorrow, which here their time do wast. 
Never in one state, but in course transitions, 
So full of change is of this world the glory. 
(Weever 416. Stone of Robert Fabian, 15,11} 

This epitaph uses the image of the earth turning from day to 
night and back again, conflated with the image of the cycles of living 
things as a symbol of rebirth, an image that resonates with 
Wordsworth's notion of the earth's diurnal course that propels his 
subject into a new mode of existence, an image that indicates a tone 
of Christian acceptance and optimism in the face of death. Further- 
more, the regular meter used in the Ash Wednesday sentiment: 
"Remember man that thou are dust/ and unto dust thou shall re- 
turn," and in the epitaph above is echoed by the regular rhythms of 
nature, where death and life, winter and summer, and darkness and 
light, replace each other in predictable rhythm. Just as the regular 
meter of poetry lends a pleasure to the sentiments it contains, so the 
predictable rhythms of the earth lend to humans a comfort and peace. 
In Christian traditions, as in Newtonian physics, the diurnal motions 
of the earth are beautifully benign. 

In addition, Wordsworth's reference to "earth's diurnal course' 
points to a connection between soothing poetic meter and the 
rhythms of Nature, if one takes into account a particular meaning 
that "diurnal" carried with it in Wordsworth's time and region: "A 
diary, or daybook" (Oxford English Dictionary). Just as a poet inscribes 
sentiment into meter, so Nature inscribes her perceivable self into a 
great poem in her immense roiling rhythms. For a human being to 
become inscribed in "earth's diurnal course" as are rocks and stones 
and trees is, therefore, for a human to become part of a great peaceful 

And yet, if the poem is so positive in tone, it seems odd that 
Wordsworth would fill it with negatives, and pack it with loss: "no 
motion has she now/ No force." Cleanth Brooks's reading of the 
poem as one of shock and horror is not, after all, without grounds. 
The poem even seems to break Wordsworth's own prescriptions that 
epitaphs, unlike elegies, may mention only the sorrows of the mourn- 
ers that are "directly excited by a distinct and clear conception of the 
individual who has died* ("Essay Upon Epitaphs" 33). We do not, 
however, have any distinct and clear conceptions of the dead "she" in 

38 The Mind's Eye 

Mary Ellen Cohans 

this poem. This has led critics to find "A slumber did my spirit sea!" to 
be only haif epitaph at best, since the first stanza seems so much 
concerned with the survivor's own leelings about his misconceptions 
of his "she" as immortal (cf. Hartman Poetry 168). 

"A slumber did my spirit seal" does, however, fit perfectly into 
Wordsworth's description of a particular subset of epitaphic poetry 
that uses the figure "prosopopeia." In this kind of epitaphic poetry, as 
Wordsworth describes it, the speaker is made to "impersonate the 
deceased, and represent him as speaking from his own tomb-stone. 
The departed Mortal is introduced telling you himself that his pains 
are gone; that a state of rest, is come; and he conjures you to weep for 
him no longer. He admonishes with the voice of one experienced in 
the vanity of those affections that are confined to earthly objects," 
and directs your attention to more lasting ideas. 

The departed mortal here is Wordsworth himself; it is no surprise 
that he imagined himself dead, given the deaths of his parents and his 
friends as he shivered through the frigid winter in the poorly heated 
house at Goslar (Reed 45, 58). That Wordsworth felt the cold is 
evident in his poem "Written in Germany on one of the Coldest Days 
of the Century," in which he compares himself to a freezing fly. In 
addition, Dorothy writes extensively about Wordsworth's feeling ili in 
Goslar, with mysterious pains about his heart (de SeJincourt. 236). 
Furthermore, Wordsworth wrote an epitaph for himself ("A Poet's 
Epitaph") during those months of isolation. 

"She" in the poem refers, then, not to a woman from another 
poem, but to the poet's own spirit, here characterized as female. 
Indeed, Wordsworth, often refers to his own soul, mind, and spirit as 
feminine entities. In Book II, line 316 of "The Prelude," for example, 
Wordsworth writes about his own soul as "remembering how she felt, 
but what she saw/ Remembering not." In Book XIII, lines 365-66 
read as foffows: "Each man's Mind is to herself/ Witness and judge." 
In addition. Book XIV, lines 228-29 read: "My soul too, reckless of 
mild grace had stood/ In her original self too confident." Again, 
Wordsworth uses the feminine pronoun for the soul when he writes 
in his "Essay Upon Epitaphs" that the soul travels until "she is 
brought back ... to the land of transitory things ... of sorrow and of 
tears" (124). 

Understanding the poem as a prosopopeic epitaph, as 
Wordsworth first designed it, governs its interpretation for the poet in 
the situation when he first wrote the poem, and for the people with 

The MindS Eye 19 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

whom he shared it as an 'epitaph": Dorothy Wordsworth and 
Coleridge. In this manifestation of the poem, Wordsworth used 
traditional conventions as he did the Language of common people: he 
referred to them, so as to raise their expectations that they might 
interpret his poem as they would a commonplace example of the 
genre, and then he Irustrales their expectations slightly, in order to 
produce authentic emotions in them; that is, to "readmit" traditional 
belief and feelings "into the soul like revelations ol the moment." 
What follows is a close reading of this performance of the poem. 

"A slumber," the poem begins, "did my spirit seal." The speaker 
here is using "slumber" as it was conventionally used in gravestone 
epitaphs: it is a euphemism for death (as in, for example, "My flesh 
shall slumber in the ground" (Sortorc 48). In his own essay on 
epitaphs, Wordsworth again uses sleeping as a euphemism for death: 
"death as a sleep overcoming the tired wayfarer" (125). Wordsworth 
also refers to — and pointedly avoids — the commonplace formula ol 
slumber "stealing" upon the weary (see, for example his "a slumber 
seems to steal" in "Lines Written in Early Youth"). Instead, the 
slumber "seals" the spirit in a way that is only explained in the second 
stanza: she is cut off, or sealed away from the experience of earthly 
objects through the bodily senses of sight, hearing, motion, and 
touch. The speaker has passed through death, finding it as gentle as 
slumber, and reports that he felt no fears that his spiritual self might 
be as mortal as his human body: hence, no "human fears." Instead 
he reports that she seems to him to be an immortal thing (and spirits, 
like souls and minds, are conventionally referred to as things), who 
cannot feel the passage of time. 

In the second stanza, the dead speaker describes the inaccessibil- 
ity of "earthly objects" to the spirit, which cannot see, hear, or touch 
them. This is not, however, a lament for the loss of his perceptions of 
these objects. It is, instead, an admonishment to those people, whom 
Wordsworth mentioned in "An Essay Upon Epitaphs," "whose affec- 
tions are confined" to such objects, to think about the possibility of 
higher forms of attachments with creation. 

In addition, Wordsworth stresses the joyful nature of this new 
state by making a play oo our expectations about the emotion death 
should elicit. He refers to, but avoids, the old formula "she neither 
sees nor hears" and its traditional match "with sorrow and in tears" 
although he himself had used this formula in other places. In the 

40 The Mind's Eye 

Mary Ellen Coham 

quote above, for example, the soul "is brought back to the land of 
transitory things — of sorrow and of tears" ("Essay" 124). Here, 
however, Wordsworth begins by switching the senses in the first line 
to "She neither hears nor sees," and completes it, not with a reference 
to transitory emotions, but with a transcendental experience: "Roll'd 
round in earth's diurnal course/ With rocks and stones and trees!" In 
other words, instead of carrying about a sensing human body occu- 
pied with perceptions of transitory things, this spirit is now being 
moved by the rhythms of the larger vessel that is the earth itself. Yet, 
she is not experiencing a loss of free will or of control. Instead, the 
living spirit finds that her motion is now joined to the diurnal 
rhythms of the earthly sphere that includes all natural things: rocks 
and stone and trees. This natural abode is not a limited one; it is 
instead, as the popular seventeenth century theologian Paley sug- 
gested, the very essence of God. 

Wordsworth, therefore, in exile from his country and his friends, 
failing at his aim of learning German philosophy and German poetry, 
short of money, and fearful of the cold, wrote "A slumber did my 
spirit seal" while imagining his own death. His reasons for hiding the 
identity of the deceased and the genre of the poem were several: 
Wordsworth later declared that prosopopoeic epitaphs were inferior 
to those written by friends of the deceased. Furthermore, 
Wordsworth had already written an epitaph for himself, and he was 
understandably reluctant to be accused as he had been of being sell- 
centered. Most importantly, Wordsworth knew that the complexity 
of his newly scientific explanation of a transcendent union with God 
could be understood only in light of his concept of the imagination, a 
concept that had its source in the epistemological psychology of the 
English philosopher, David Hartley. For that reason, for his later 
poetry collections, Wordsworth classified the poem as a "Poem of the 

IV. A Poem of the Imagination 

Wordsworth discusses imagination in Book 14 of The Prelude, 
writing that it "in truth/ Is but another name for absolute power/ And 
clearest insight, amplitude of mind,/ And reason in her most exalted 
mood" (189). In this passage, however, WordswoTth praises imagina- 
tion more clearly than he defines it. The meanings behind his 

The Mind's Eye 41 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

panegyrics are rooted in the thinking, not of the German philoso- 
phers whom he had hoped to study, but of the English philosopher 
Hartley, whose work had inspired Wordsworth and Coleridge just 
before they left for Germany, Coleridge, for example, in a letter to 
Southey written in 1794, wrote that he considered himself "more 
Hartleyian than Hartley himself" (Huguelet xvii). And Coleridge, as 
he was apt to do, named the son who was bom to him while he was 
enamored of Hartley's philosophy Hartley Coleridge. 

Unlike Coleridge, who was successful in learning German phi- 
losophy during the trip, Wordsworth, isolated, lonely, and homesick, 
kept his thoughts on English philosophy as well as on English ballads 
(el, Brett and Jones xxxiii and xxxiv). Of course, it is unclear how 
much of Wordsworth's understanding of Hartley was filtered through 
what Coleridge called his "more-Hartleyian" interpretations and how 
much was bent by Wordsworth's own philosophical proclivity 
(Hugulet, xvii). Nevertheless, much in Wordsworth's Preface to the 
Lyrical Ballads, much in his letters and much in the poems themselves 
reveal close correspondence to Hartley's Observations on Man, His 
Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations, particularly, Wordsworth's idea of 

In this book. Hartley defines imagination as one of a set of mental 
powers, all ultimately derived from sensations of natural objects, 
Through sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, he reasoned, aspects of 
external objects are communicated to the brain, where they are 
received as "simple ideas". When we are young, we are able to 
experience directly the sensations we receive from nature; some 
persons who are usually attentive to nature may be able to hold on to 
this relatively direct way of experiencing the world through their 
adulthood. Sooner or later, however, most sensations are accompa- 
nied willy nilly by a set of "associated remembered emotions* (28). A 
hillside, lor example, will conjure up in us memories of other times in 
which we have seen similar sights, associations with other things 
from these experiences, and with how we felt during these earlier 
times, and how we now feel about our earlier experiences and 
feelings, and so on, until the hillside becomes obscured by our 
personal associations. As Hartley puts it, "when the pleasure or pain 
attending sensations and ideas is great, all the associations belonging 
to them are much accelerated and strengthened . . . for the violent 
vibrahons excited in such cases, soon over-rule the natural vibrations. 

42 The Minds Eye 

Mary Ellen Cohans 

and leave in the brain a strong tendency to themselves, from a few 
impressions" (22), The hillside itself is now almost beside the point. 
In this process, which he calls imagination, "ideas, and trains of ideas, 
occur, or are called up, in a vivid manner, and without regard to the 
order of former actual impressions and perceptions" (iii). Hartley, 
surprisingly enough, exalted this process, saying that "The Pleasures 
of Imagination are the next remove above the sensible ones, and 
have, in their proper place and degree, a great efficacy in improving 
and perfecting our Natures" (244) . Wordsworth, as I will show, 
shared Hartley's sentiments about all this: in, for example, his evalua- 
tion of imagination as "clearest insight" and "amplitude of mind." 

Hartley, unlike Wordsworth, did rank another mental process, 
that of the "generation of social, moral, and religious affections"— that 
is, the personal experience of these truths — above that of imagina- 
tion. Wordsworth conflated these two states for two reasons; first, 
because imagination is the realm of poetry. As Hartley put it, "we 
think in words; both the Impressions and the Recurrences of Ideas 
will be attended with words; and these words from the great use and 
familiarity with language, will fix themselves strongly in the fancy" 
(376). In addition, Wordsworth thought that poetry had the power to 
generate social, moral, and religious truths, by expressing the effects 
of perceptions and ideas on human sensibilities in words that could 
shape the ideas of the future. 

Wordsworth records his own transition from direct sensation to 
imagination — from experiencing Nature to writing about her— in 
"Tintern Abbey" (another "Poem of the Imagination") which he 
wrote just before he left. Engfand for Germany. 

Wordsworth begins by describing how, five years before, his mind 
had been in a state of perception: when the sound of the mountain 
springs, and the sight of the woods and fields, orchard tufts, and 
pastoral farms had come to him unmixed with obscuring associations. 
He writes: "They had no need or a. remoter charm/ By thought 
supplied/ Or any interest Unborrowed from the eye." The time of 
direct perception of nature, however, "is past ... all the coarser 
pleasures of my boyish days ... all gone by." Wordsworth has grown 
into another kind of mental power, and now the physical aspects of 
the site are half-obscured for him by emotional associations and 

Wordsworth does not mourn this replacement in himself of direct 
perception with imagination. Instead, he, like Hartley, feels that the 

pm Mind's Bye 41 

Mary Ellen Cohans 

gifts of memory and imagination are "abundant recompense" for the 
loss of perception. In his new state of mind. Nature is only "the 
anchor of my purest thoughts," and both the ideas that are directly 
caused by her and those which the mind "half- creates" from percep- 
tions altered by thoughts and associations, are equally pleasing to 

Dorothy, however, is still in a state of perception. Her brother 
writes: . . in thy voice I catch/ The language of my former heart, 
and read/ My former pleasure in the shooting light/ Of thy wild 
eyes." Her ability to perceive nature directiy will also change in time, 
as nature leads "from joy to joy": 

... and in alter years, 
. . . these wild ecstacies shall be matured 
Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind 
Shall be as a mansion for all lovely forms. 
Thy memory be as a dwelling place 
For all sweet sounds and harmonies. 

Wordsworth's use of the metaphor nl the mansion here is an 
allusion to the Christian idea, stemming from Christ's words "In my 
Father's house there are many mansions," which was interpreted as 
meaning that those who experienced God in heaven would know 
Him according to their varying capacities. (This was the idea ampli- 
fied by Milton in creating his various levels of ascension in paradise.) 
This metaphor is quite in keeping with Hartley's theory of 
"theopathy," an idea (similar to Paley's) by which God is seen as 
inscribing Himself in Nature, to be read there "either in an explicit 
and distinct manner, or in a more secret and implicit one" by those 
who contemplate His works (Hartley, 420). The development of 
imagination, for Wordsworth as for Hartley, meant a capacity for a 
fuller experience of God unmediated by the senses; an experience of a 
"presence" he is able to feel with 

... a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused. 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean, and the living air. 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, 
A motion and a spirit that impels 

44 The Mind's Eye 

Mary Ellen Coham 

All thinking things, all objects of all thought, 
And rolls through all things. 

This is the same godly spirit that impels Wordsworth's soul, full of 
thoughts, unencumbered by sights or sounds, "in earth's diurnal 
force/ With rocks and stones and trees." 

Wordsworth experiences this spirit yet again in another Goslar 
poem called 'Influence of Natural Objects in Calling Forth and 
Strengthening the Imagination in Boyhood and Early Youth." Here, 
Wordsworth remembers skating along the surface of an icy stream 
and then stopping suddenly, only to find that "the solitary cliffs/ 
Wheeled by me— even as if the earth had rolled/ With Visible motion 
her diurnal round." Those whu remember whirling around in circles 
as children to get this same feeling of the earth as it turns know that 
such awareness only comes when our eyesight and hearing are lost trj 
a dizzy blur. Once again, the sublime is identified with the rolling 
movement of the earth, which is only experienced in a moment 
when the senses are kept from ordinary perception: "Thou Soul, that 
art the Eternity of thought!/ And giv'st to forms and images a breath/ 
And everlasting motion!" In the same way, Wordsworth's "spirit," 
freed of mundane perceptions, feels herself "rolf'd round in earth's 
diurnal course," a situation Wordsworth infuses with a metaphysical 
joy matured by thought into a "sober pleasure." 

The symbolic death of perceptions, and the occurrence of deatfi 
itself are conflated in a third poem from Goslar, "The Boy of 
Winander"— another "Poem of the Imagination." This boy entwines 
his own voice with that of nature in a jocund din, but he still has the 
capacity to hear nature's voice directly, as "with a gentle shock of mild 
surprise," he finds that the sound of mountain torrents is being 
carried straight into his soul. The perceiving child, the speaker tells 
us, is dead: on his grave stands his transformed self: the poet, who 
builds bis mind and his poetry on the basis of the perceptions he once 
experienced in mute tranquility. The poet stands, perhaps able, again, 
to hear the sound of rushing water, but that sound is now obscured 
from him by his memories and associations about his childhood 
experience of that sound; memories and associations that have 
become, for us, a poem. 

A similar image occurs in another poem written in Goslar: "A 
Poet's Epitaph." Here, the dead poet addresses six types of men who 
might pass by his grave: politicians, lawyers, scholars, soldiers. 

The Mind's Eye 45 

Mary Ellen Cohan; 

physicians, and moralists. Ail these are asked to pass by his grave 
quickly (except for the soldier, who might stay should he leave his 
sword aside, and once more "lean upon a peasant's staff"). The 
seventh passer-by resembles the poet himself before the full growth of 
his imagination: like Lucy he is modest and retiring; and like the Boy 
of Winander, he is acutely aware of natural objects; and yet he is 
already able to shut his eyes to nature and turn a quiet eye into "his 
own heart." The dead poet invites the young man to draw strength 
from his grave; to rest upon it, or even to build a house there. The 
words of his epitaph, carved into natural stone, have the means of 
carrying the boy into a higher life of imagination, giving him words 
with which to lose his perceptions, and to shape his imagination. The 
symbolic death of one's ability to perceive nature directly is only a 
precursor to actual death, which is nothing but an entry into a higher 
realm of imagination. As Hartley put it, "death, or the shaking off of 
the gross body, may not stop our progress [in knowing GodJ, but 
rather render us more expedite in the pursuit of our true end. . . . 
Ultimate happiness appears to be of a spiritual, not corporal nature" 

Interestingly, the poem with which Wordsworth replaced "A 
slumber did my spirit seal" in what scholars have called a group of 
"Lucy" poems, in later editions of his collected poems, has a similar 
motif. In "I travelled among unknown men," Lucy's death has the 
effect of transforming the speaker's perceptions of his home county 
when he was absent from that place, sitting in Guslar by a scanty cold 
fire: yet his experience of England in his imagination was one of a 
higher, poetic nature. The poem that precedes "A slumber did my 
seal" in the 1815 edition, "Three years she grew in sun in shower, " 
also makes a new kind of sense in the context of Hartley's philosophy. 
The death of Lucy, that aspect of Wordsworth that can stifl experience 
nature directly, is once again a transformation of his perceptions of 
nature: "She died, and left to me/ Thfs heath, this calm, and quiet 
scene." The language resonates with traditional beliefs: Nature has 
taken Lucy "to herself" just as God is conventionally said to take His 
Creatures "unto Himself" in order to experience His Presence unme- 
diated by perception: the "shooting light" of Dorothy's wild eyes is a 
synecdoche for the action of all her senses. Lucy is also the perceiving 
aspect in Wordsworth who must die so that other forms of mental 
power might be bom. The death of Wordsworth's sensing self in "A 

46 The Mind's Eye 

Mary Ellen Cahane 

slumber did my spirit seal" brings to birth his spirit's capacity to free 
thoughts from encumbering perceptions, and to attune them to the 
unmitigated poetic masterpiece that is God. 

Wordsworth, like Hartley, was not rejecting religion as he tried to 
explain the death of perception and the growth of imagination in 
human experience. Instead, Wordsworth was finding scientific 
evidence that proved beliefs about death that Christians had tradi- 
tionally held on faith. The great debate about whether Wordsworth 
was a pantheist or a Methodist misses the subtleties that affect the 
quality of belief in all thoughtful people, and especially in 
Wordsworth. Although Coleridge, early in their friendship, wrote that 
Wordsworth was " a republican, and, at least, a semi-atheist" (Harper 
220), the evidence suggests that Wordsworth was drawn to the old 
tenets of Christian belief, and set about rationalizing them through 
the medium of Hartley's rational psychology (Brantley x, 144). 

fn this context, "A slumber did my spirit seal" is a poem about the 
transformation of experience, as the spirit is sealed away from direct 
perception into a new life of participation in the mind of God. The 
identity of "She" includes the iconic Lucy, the young Wordsworth, 
little Basil Montague, and all young people insofar as they are in a 
state of perception. The "human" fears are fears about the foss of 
childhood perceptions, and about death; fears that arc transformed to 
a calm joy once the redeeming nature of imagination is understood. 
As Wordsworth writes in The Prelude, the loss of hearing, seeing, 
feeling is an entry into a new state wherein "sanctified by reason, 
blest by faith," the mind becomes 

a thousand times more beautiful than the earth 
. . . above this frame of things. . . 
tn beauty exalted, as it is itself 
Of quality and fabric more divine. 

As a "Poem of the Imagination," then, "A slumber did my spirit 
seal" explores a symbolic death: the death of direct perception that 
takes place as people accumulate memories and imaginative ideas. It 
was a triumph. Far away from the perception of lovely natural 
things, isolated from the universities full of philosophical speculation, 
Wordsworth achieved an artistic expression, of these ideas that could 
make them alive For philosophers of perception, and that integrated 
them with Christian ideas. Wordsworth's immediate audience for Lhe 

The Mind's Eye 47 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

poem was that little coterie of intellectuals who discussed Hartley 
with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and himself in those idyllic days in the 
Lake District, who could interpret the poem according to their shared 
knowledge of Hartley's philosophy. That immediate communicative 
community was expanded upon with Wordsworth's new labeling of 
"A slumber did my spirit seal"; now anyone schooled in philosophy 
who recognized the issues involved in questions of "Imagination" 
could be part of its interpretive community. 

And so we see that the meaning of the poem, from a folklorist's 
point of view, depends on the circumstances of each performance of 
that poem. "A slumber" carries different images when it is seen as an 
epitaph than when it is seen as a poem of the imagination: it refers, in 
one case, to an imagined death, and, in the second, to a symbolic 
death and rebirth. Nevertheless, in both performances of the poem by 
William Wordsworth, its central tone remains the same; one of 
tranquil joy. 

For some contemporary literary critics, these performances of "A 
slumber did my spirit seal" by its author are considered essential to 
interpreting the poem "correctly." Other critics see themselves not 
only unfettered by the cultural context of the poet, but living under 
postmodern conditions, where no one narrative is held sacred, and no 
one metanarrative lends guidance for interpreting that narrative. The 
realization that "A slumber did my spirit seal" has become a de facto 
sacred narrative for English-speaking literary critics is a beginning: 
next we can decide if we do, indeed, wish to become one communi- 
cative community, and only then choose interpretive conventions to 
govern our understandings of our expressive culture under the 
different sorts of circumstances in which it is performed. 

48 The Mind's Bye 

Mary Ellen Cohans 

Selected Bibliography 

Bateson, EW.. English Poetry: A Critical Introduction. New York, Barnes 

and Noble, 1950. 
Bernhardt-Kabish, n.n. "Wordsworth: The Monumental Poet." 

Philological Quarterly 44 (1965): 503-518. 
Brantley, Richard E. Wordsworth 's "Natural Methodism " New Haven: 

Yale UP, 1973. 

Brett, R. L. and A. R. Jones. Introduction. Lyrical Ballads by 

William Wordsworth. London: Methuen. 1965. 
Brooks, Cleanth. "Irony as a Principle of Structure." in literary 

Opinion in America. M.D. Sabel, ed. New York Harper & 

Row, 19511. 

Caraher, Brian G. Wordsworth 's 'Slumber ' and the Problematics of 

Reading. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1991 . 
Culler, Jonathan. Address to the English Institute. English Institute 

Meetings- Harvard: September, 1997. 
Davson, William P. "The Perceptual Bond in "Strange Fits of 

Passion-'" Wordsworth Circle XHI (1982): 96-97. 
de Man, Paul. "The Rhetoric of Temporality," in Paul De Man. 

Blindness and Insight. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1971. 

"Autobiography as De-Facement." in Paul de Man. The 
Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. 
de Selincourt, Ernest. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: the 

Early Years. 1787-1805. (rev. Chester L, Shaver) Oxford UP: 

London, 1967, 

Devlin, D. Wordsworth and the Poetry of Epitaphs. London: MacMillan, 

Draper, John. The Funeral Elegy and the Rise of English Romanticism, 

N.Y.: Phaeton Press, 1929. 
Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton: Princeton 

UP, 1971. 

Ferguson, Francis. "The Lucy Poems: Wordsworth's Quest for a Poetic 
Object." ELH 40 (1973): 532-548. 

Friedman, A. B. The Ballad Revival. U of Chicago Press: Chicago,1961 . 

Graff, Gerald. "Determinancy/Sndeterminancy." Lentriccia and 
McLaughlin, 163-76. 

Harper, George McLean. William Wordsworth: His Life, Works, and In- 
fluence. N.Y.: Russell and Russell, 1929. 

The Mind's Eye 49 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

Hartley, David. Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His 

Expectations. 1749. Gainsville. Florida: Scholars' Facsimiles, 1966. 
—. Priestly, ed. Hartley's Theory of the Human Mind. New York: 

A.M.S. Press, 1973. 
Hartman, Geoffrey H. "The Use and Abuse of Structural Analysis: 

Rifaterre's Interpretation of Wordsworth's 'Yew Trees.'" New 

Literary History! (1975): 165-89. 
— . The Unremarkable Wordsworth. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota 

Press, 1987. 

Wordsworth Poetry, 1787-1814. New Haven: Yak UP, 1964. 
Hirsch, E, D. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: YaJe UP, 1967. 
Hugelet, T. L. Introduction. Hartley, Observations 1966. 
Hymes, Dell Foundations in Sociolinguistks: An Ethnographic Approach. 

Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1974. 
jacobus, Mary. Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworth 's Lyrical Ballads. 

Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. 
Jones, Mark. The "Lucy Poems": A Case Study in Literary Knowledge. 

Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1995, 
Kinseila, Thomas. An Duanaire/An Irish Anthology: 1600-1900 — Poems of 

the Dispossessed. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1981, p. 41. 
— . Personal Communication. University of Pennsylvania, Spring, 


Knapp, Steven, and Walter Benn Michaels. "Against Theory." 

Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 723-42. 
Kroeber, Karl. The Artifice of Reality: Poetic Style in Wordsworth, Poscolo, 

Keats, and Leopardi. Madison; U of Wisconsin Press, !964. 
Lentriccia, Frank and Thomas McLaughlin, eds. Critical Terms for 

Literary Study. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1990. 
Ludwig, Allan. Graven Images: New England Stone Carving and Its 

Symbols: 1 650- IS 15. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 


Lutz, Catherine. Unnnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a 
Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory. 
Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1988. 

McLeach, Edward. The Ballad Book. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1975. 

Murphy, Peter. Personal communication. August, 1988. 

Ong, Walter, "The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction." PMLA 90; 
(1975): 9-21. 

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Werner, ecis. 
New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 

50 The Mind's Eye 

Mary Ellen Cohane 

Percy, Thomas. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. London: 1794. 
Reed, Mark L. Wordsworth: The Chronology of the Early Years. 

1770-1799. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967. 
Sortore, R J. Record of Graves in Colonial Cemetery (Old Presbyterian 

Churchyard). Metuchen, N. J.: D.A.R. Press, 1931-32. 
Stam, David. Wordsworthian Criticism 1964-1973: An Annotated 

Bibliography. New York; N.Y. Public Library, C1974. 
Thomson, Douglas H. "Wordsworth's Lucy of "Nutting'" Si Review 18 

(1979): 287-98. 
Weever, Richard. Ancient Funeral! Monuments, n.p., 1631. 
Williams, John. William Wordsworth: A Literary Life. New York: St. 

Martian's Press, 1996. 
Wordsworth, William. "Essay Upon Epitaphs." in Wordsworth's 

Literary Criticism. Ed. W.J.B. Owen. London: Routledge and 

Kegan Paul, 1974. 
— . Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones. London: Methuen, 


— . Poems in Two Volumes. 1807. Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1914. 
— . Poems in Two Volumes and Other Poems, I8O0-1807. Ithaca: 
Cornel] UP. 1983. 

"Preface to the Lyrical Ballads." Wordswonh. Lyrical Ballads. 
— . The Prelude: 1799. 1805, 1850. Jonathan Wordswonh and Stephen 
Gill, eds. New York: Norton, 1979. 

The Mind's Eye •$! 

Buying Eggs at the 
Half Way House 



The moon rolls onto the shoulder 
Of the ridge, the December 
Grasses, sheathed in frost. 
Glisten like fiber optics, transmitting 
The kinetic solar wind to be stored 
By the dormant roots 

Peter lives in a half 
Way house with neat clapboards 
And a brown board barn, where. 
Retarded, he and the others 
Carry on a road side trade in 
Fresh eggs and painted bird 
Houses, advertised on plywood signs 
That bend when it rains 

We first met Peter when 
New friends from church 
Helped us move and brought 
Their nephew along. 
I remember feeling ashamed 
Not wanting him to grab 
Boxes marked fragile 

52 The Mind's Eye 

Jan Myskowsk: 

Whenever he sees us on the road 
He yells outrageously, "hello," 
But he yells not to us as individuals. 
Not for us as the remembered, 
He yells the same at the attendant 
Standing numbly by — all day long 

Once I saw him coasting 

Down hill on a bicycle. 

The spokes of the wheels 

Chasing themselves around the hubs. 

His arms rigid on the 

Bars, and his face 

Wrenched between ecstacy and fear 

Another time t stopped for 
Eggs and my knock brought 
Him splashing toward the door, 
Through the glass I watched 
The attendant push him back. 
His arms still flailing and clutching 

I'd like to believe that Peter 
Gathers the eggs we buy 
From the hutches himself, the 
Struggle must make his thick 
Lips tremble, and the chords and 
Tendons of his arm show as 
He restrains his fingers, 
I'd like to see those thin-shelled 
Successes come to rest in the cartons 

The June grasses grow 

A green brighter than fire — 

Perennial, everywhere, 

Between the ruts in the wood road. 

From the cleft of a stone. 

The Mind's Eye 53 



At Cleveland's Rock 
and Roll Hall of Fame 
and Museum: 

Looking For Myself In 

JL JLere are my credentials. I am 54 years old. At the risk ol 
sounding like a Forrest Gump wanna be, I share the following: 
When I was about 10, growing up in Shreveport, LA, I sang a song in 
a talent show at Linwood Junior High with some other locals and a 
lanky, older teenager with dark, duck-tailed hair who sang with a 
hillbilly band (as they were called then) from Memphis and wiggled 
ail over the stage. The audience roared with laughter at him and 
giggled about his funny name. My mother called him "seedy" and 
told me not to watch. But I did. I was a witness. At the very begin- 
ning, I was there. 

With my 12th birthday money in 1955, 1 bought three 78s (those 
are big, plastic records): Pat Boone's "Ain't That a Shame," "Rock 
Around the Clock" by Bill Hailey and the Comets, and Little Richard's 
"Tutti-Frutti" (fiipside: "Long Tall Sally"). My jazz- musician father 
had a fit. I can still sing every word of all of those songs. By the time 1 

54 The Mind's Eye 

Bonnie Bishoff 

was 13, 1 had discovered the black radio stations in Shreveport, and I 
was starting to listen to some reai down-and-dirty rock and roll and 
some classic rhythm and blues. By the time [ was 1 8, I was going to 
dances played by Cookie and the Cupcakes and Bo Diddley. By the 
time I was 21, the Beatles had crossed the Atlantic. By the time 1 
turned an untrustworthy 30 in 1973, I could have written the book 
on rock 'n roll. I owned it! 

So when I heard about the rock and roll museum In Cleveland, I 
was awestruck at the possibilities. The world ol my youth — the 
soundtrack of my life — the snapshots of my soul were available to me 
and to future generations who could now experience what they had 
only seen on video until today. This would be the baby boomers' Tut 
exhibit. This would be our legacy to America — an environment 
celebrating the sound, rhythm, movement, and new definitions of 
freedom that defined half a century. I couldn't wait to get there. 1 
expected to meet mysell around, every corner in this shrine to us. I 
was positively giddy about this long-awaited reunion with my youth 
in a field of dreams where Johnny and Ronnie and Jimmy and Joey 
and Billie and Betsey and Hani Fatti would welcome me back to a 
world of slow-dancing on dark patios, bottled Dr. Pepper laced with a 
hit of bourbon, Chantilly perfume and Old Spice cologne (later White 
Shoulders and Canoe), bopping barefoot to the music of Mickey and 
Sylvia on the wet paved floor of the city pool pavilion, requesting 
Jimmy Clanton songs on the radio and dedicating them to various 
secret crushes from a secret admirer. At Cleveland's Rock and Roll 
Hall of Fame and Museum {America's second largest family tourist 
attraction after Disneyworld), 1 went looking for myself in hyper- 

I couldn't find me. 

Looking for self: what does one expect or hope to find? Well, in 
music — the soundtrack of a lifetime — specific times and places 
connected to songs define the significance of the music to an indi- 
vidual life. In the context of time and place, you can find yourself in 
the music that shaped your decisions and defined your emotional 
responses and accompanied significant moments that make your life 
your own. You should be able to find yourself in a museum dedicated 
to that music. 

I couldn't find hyperspace, either — the fourth dimension: that 
parallel universe of highly subjective, compacted space-between- 

Thc Mind's Eye 55 

Bonnie Bishaff 

words that surrounds objects — invisible and electronic, dense with 
possibility and populated with totally unique and private and 
unshareable images — an ocean of personhood teeming with devel- 
oped and undeveloped forms of potential personal wisdom and 

Now, there is certainly no way to evoke the REAL PAST — it is far 
too subjective an experience — but in hyperspace, concrete time and 
place are removed, and we are left with ourselves and an object in a 
vacuum. The only meaning is subjective memory in and of itself — 
wakening old, stored emotions and personal visions of yourself in a 
world only you experienced. But in this museum, objects and sound 
run together in such confusion that the white sound coupled with the 
white experience adds up to nothingness. 

Let me begin at the beginning of this non -magical, unmysterious 

On a blustery January day, my friends and I set out to the 
lakeshore of Cleveland to at last get a peek inside of the four-story, 
gray, conical, stone and glass structure that is the rock and roll 
museum. We hardly noticed the ten-minute uphill walk from the 
nearest parking area. We had been encouraged to make reservations; 
our 10:45 admission time was at hand, Upon entering the building, 
we were immediately commanded by a no-nonsense guard to check 
our umbreilas. We then proceeded through the cavernous, sort of 
bus-terminal lobby — with its list of predictable but somehow stultify- 
ing no-nos and rules of behavior — to the dark entrance. Its portals 
resembled an old-fashioned movie theatre door. We could see neon 
possibilities glowing in the dark beyond us, beckoning us into a 
dream state— a dream date. Another, somewhat surfy, watchman- 
usher demanded our wrists and slapped on thick plastic bracelets, so 
strong that we were later unable to rip them off by hand and 
equipped, I would guess, with a sensor that tracks patron movement 
and time spent in areas around the museum. A little creepy, but 
probably justifiable. I guess maybe I was expecting just a stamp on my 
hand, but hey! 

We were then told in serious tones just which direction to take to 
proceed through the museum. Each of us, of course — in rebellious 
rock and roll mode by now — took off in his or her own direction to 
experience this adventure in our singular way. As it turned out, it 
didn't matter a whit which path we or anyone else took: this was all 
set up for traffic control— probably essentia! in the crowded days of 

56 The Mind's Eye 

Bonnie Bishoff 

summer, but we were practically the only ones there that day! A sad 
little tone colored by the business-like rules had vaguely begun to rob 
us of our exhuberance as we entered the dark hallways of Level One. 

m the center of Level One, there is a cinema. It is divided into 
two sections. Section one shows "Mystery Train," a pretty good short 
film about the roots of rock in gospel, blues, country, Folk, and fifties 
rock and roll — a little fragmented, but on the whole, well-made and 
worthwhile. Then the audience proceeds to the left (on command 
from an unseen voice) and enters a second cinema for part 2, "Kick 
Out the Jams," a chronicle of the rock and roll explosion in the fifties 
and sixties. This one is far from worthwhile: endless short clips ol 
badly shot footage of bands in concert, juxtaposed with long, repeti- 
tious interviews with a handful of musicians. But at last one is 
sprung to proceed through the rest of the experience, free at fast — or 
so I thought — from the humdrum of video screens and their predict- 
able, limiting images. 

In the exhibition areas of the museum, sections of the display are 
named and divided — though so subtly one is hardly aware of the 
changes— with such catchy titles as 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," 
"Come See about Me," and "Can't Take My Byes Off of You"— all of 
which might be appealing if the section designations were identified 
and somehow really did set specific areas apart from one another. 
"Don't Knock the Rock" (the gateway into the displays from the early 
years) consists of fairly large graphic depictions of selected quotes 
from fearful opponents of the music from earlier times (such as, 
would you believe, Tipper Gore?) as well as large video screens 
showing footage of preachers and DJs ranting and raving and break- 
ing old 78s. This area is the first of quite a few subtle and sometimes 
not so subtle disclaimers that keep turning up around the building, 
and that somehow send a subliminal message separating "us" from 
"them". The problem is that one is never quite sure whether the 
museum is on the side of "us" or "them" — or even which is which. 

The densely overcrowded and dimly lit areas celebrating the early 
years add up to what can only be called a non-event — a crowded, 
dark, cold, colorless, rigid, soulless, incomplete, and unimaginative 
display of mostly disconnected artifacts: 8x10 glossies; occasional 
pieces of sheet music with marginal notes; some hand-written lyrics; 
old Cub Scout shirts and report cards of the stars (all crowded to- 
gether in glass cases, many of them at floor level — bring your glasses 
and be ready to stoop, bend over, or kneel in order to read the endless 

The Mind's Bye 57 

Bonnie Bishoff 

typewritten and handwritten documents on exhibit five feet below 
eye level); plus a tew tie-dyed shirts from the sixties; a cape that 
belonged to Elvis; a hand-painted car that belonged to Janis; a wool 
hat that belonged to Dion; costumes worn by the Supremes and 
Michael Jackson modeled by four identical mannequins in gender 
appropriate wigs; and a virtual slew of old guitars. 

Aurally, this exhibit is a nightmare. The hall is dominated by TV 
screens mounted everywhere: showing video snippets of information, 
snippets of concerts, snippets of biographies, all playing at a volume 
that prevents the listener/watcher from separating the audio of one 
sound track from another. Words and music come from all directions 
and create a din of white noise that evokes the feel of outer space, not 
hyperspace. There is absolutely no design to the sound or to the 
juxtaposition of one sound against another. Now randomness has its 
place (I remember happenings and "Paul is Dead" when you played 
the record backwards), but the random is out of place when it is 
inescapable, or when it is in no way spontaneous. Chaos theory 
requires live action, one-time hit-or-miss occurances, humans making 
behavioral choices — it celebrates fate. In this museum (which exists 
to give homage to the sublime intervals of ordered sounds), the aural 
chaos profoundly frustrates all human attempts to distinguish one 
audio signal from another. It creates chaos out of order. Perhaps the 
strongest intrusion into any concentration I might have been able to 
develop, as I tried so hard to become one with this place, was the 
proliferation of fragmented videos and partial musical clips with 
which I was constantly bombarded. Publicity for the museum actually 
boasts of "the 96 monitor video wall of performance segments from a 
variety of artists." I've seen displays like that at Sears. 

Surrounded by this gray hall of horror is an open space named 
"Let's Spend the Night Together." OK, how can you miss on this one? 
We're talking the Beatles and the Stones now. "Have you seen the 
psychedelic exhibit?" someone asks. Guess what: stage costumes, 
tie-dyed clothes, album covers, a few painted flowers on the floor, 
more and more and more guitars — and of course, the ever-present 
video screens. Not even so much as a black light. "If you remember 
the sixties, you weren't there," goes the old saying. Well, neither was 
the curator of this room. There is nothing more I can add except to 
say that I heard recently that the museum had received a significant 
contribution from The Who— more old drums, guitars, and speakers. 
And on April 3rd, 1998, CNN announced that the rock and roll 

58 The Mind's Eye 

Bonnie Bishoff 

museum had added an entire new wing for video "rockumentaries," I 
rest my case. 

On to the next area: more TVs showing endless video clips of the 
emerging psychedelic scenes in London and San Francisco, more 
concert performance clips, more bits of interviews — no one segment 
ever lasting more than a minute. A place to flee. But fleeing leads 
one into the arena devoted to fans — and yet more video! Videos of 
fans and fanatical behaviour, videos showing glimpses of the interac- 
tion between fans and performers — and worst of all, videos of inter- 
views with fans. The only "real" visual in the area is the drumstick 
collection of some famous rock drummer, arrayed in a sunburst 

Feeling a lot like Alice In Wonderland, 1 turned into the room ol 
"One Hit Wonders" full of afbum covers, 8x10 glossies, tiny textual 
references, and available audio from computers— all featuring differ- 
ent performers and their one shining moment of fame. If they were 
lucky enough to have ever been on video, you can probably see it 
here. 1 wouldn't know. I was just passing through. 

And so it continued — educational, perhaps, but barely interesting. 
Along the side halls of the museum, in the less "popular" settings, 1 
found a few industrial rooms such as the one that shows the making 
of a song — full of yeL more text, more audio, more photos. But at 
least free of those dreaded videos and their frenzied clips. 

A very dark room full of shower stall listening areas and comput- 
ers with ear phones enabled me to hear 500 songs that shaped rock 
and roll — most still fairly popular and easy to hear in modern TV 
commercials or on those specialty rock and roll albums available by 
phone — but none of the wonderful obscure stuff that would really 
knock your virtual bobby socks off and bring tears to your eyes if only 
you could hear them once more. Stan's Record Shop on Texas Street 
in Shreveport had old listening booths in which you could sit and 
listen to a record before you bought it. Wouldn't it be satisfying if 
there had only been one of those tucked in a corner here for those of 
us who might remember? 

But it is not the specifics — or lack thereof — that are significant 
here. Nothing specific evokes the memories or jolts the psyche of 
every visitor. Yet an evocation of time and place is essential — a 
psychic space or shape with wormholes through which one can travel 
to reshape her own experience or his own relationship to the past — to 
gain insight, understanding, new perspective. But this is all exhibit; 

The Mind's Eye 59 

Bonnie Bishoff 

no environment, no energy, no ghosts; random objects under glass 
and a plethora of video clips just don't do the trick. How can you find 
your self and your spiritual relationship with time in this dimly lit, 
gray hall of cold, inanimate memorabilia? 

Up on Level 2, a video tree (!) presents the history of music 
videos from MTV (the eighties to the present) , Another exhibit 
shows the impact of (what else?) TV on rock and roll; there is also an 
exhibit of video clips of the best 10 rock and roll films and video clips 
of some rock artists' favorite movies and a video about Alan Freed — 
and at last a stairway to Level 3 and fast food and natural light and 
pretty views of Lake Erie. 

Level 4 and still searching: another cinema examining various 
aspects of rock and roll — we skipped it. And, then, kind of unexpect- 
edly, we came across the only real installation in the museum— a 
recreation of The Wall in honor of Pink Floyd. Separate from the 
other exhibits (and one floor up from the snack bar), it is a three- 
dimensional structure with appropriate graffitti, strange figures, and 
words of confession and warning by Roger Waters about the dehu- 
manization of performance. Indirectly lit by natural illumination, it is 
evocative, philosophical, and visually stimulating, compelling, and 
sophisticated. Offered in silence, it creates the strongest rhythms in 
the museum. 

Rock and roll was huge, IS huge — but not one thing in this 
museum is physically, spiritually or psychically huge. Even the Hall 
of Fame is just small — tucked four stories up, prefaced in its outer 
lobby by a continuous showing of — yes — video clips from induction 
ceremonies and reached , popularly, by an endless, curving, almost 
completely dark, wlndowless, close and claustrophobic stairway that 
feels like something out of a haunted exhibit at some county fair. 
Somewhere there must be an elevator to access the Hall of Fame, but 
you would really have to look for it. 

Once there, in a sort of playhouse-sized rotunda, your eyes finally 
adjust to the dark and you discover that the round walls are electroni- 
cally displaying (in the tiniest images yet — literally snapshot-sized) 
the names and sometimes the faces of the honorees. You can't even 
make the rounds at your own rhythm, pace, and leisure. You soon 
discover that this electronic display is fading in and out at about the 
speed it takes my little old Mat to download the most extensive 
graphic presentations off the net. So if you waik up to the image of a 
star too late, it fades away and there is some real down time, while 

60 The Mind's Eye 

Bonnie Bishoff 

you wait for Sam Cooke or whoever to reappear. If you are lucky 
enough to have the Hall of Fame and Sam Cooke's little display to 
yourself, you can actually get close enough to press your nose up 
against the black glass wall and read the tiny print beside Sam's tiny 
likeness. It's a space from which you absolutely cannot wait to 

All done. The track takes you by the gift shop on your way out: 
an ocean (a Dali painting) ol literally thousands of unbought T-shirts 
packed into racks, dripping from floor to ceiling, and — appropriately 
— enough tapes and CDs to take your breath away. A shop, taking up 
a space bigger than any of the individual exhibits in the museum. 
The big picture grows clearer. 

As we left the building, some ancient roadies were setting up a 
sound stage — oversize speakers and all — in the fairly small lobby. 
They were preparing for a 3 p.m. concert by some unknown group 
about to bombard this limited, walled space with yet more sound. We 
walked out into the cold rain and welcomed the fresh wet air and the 
quarter mile walk back to the car and the blessed, blessed silence. 

The museum and its philosphy is very mainstream even as it 
represents a movement that is anything but. It seems to be unfin- 
ished — things are missing. With due respect, the planners do seem to 
recognize the problem — how to present this monumental era in 
"museum language" — but somewhere along the way, they missed 
the solution. The museum superimposes a cleanliness and a regime 
(even in its cone-like, circular design) that stands out in contrast to 
the grease and anarchy that it claims to celebrate. It makes rock and 
roll respectable. This is a safe place to bring the kiddies. It backs up 
the cover story you gave them about your past, It puts its own 
conservative spin on out history and how music has shaped it. 
Something significant has been lost, not found. The rock and roll 
museum and hall of fame is erasing, not adding to, our collective 

In all of the rock and roll museum, there is no recreation of real 
space — nothing to feel, touch or walk into. Not a breathtaking 
moment in the whole event — not once do you turn a corner or step 
across some threshhold into a parallel universe. The many dark 
spaces seem just unlit — as if the authorities are conserving electricity. 
There is no lighting design to define areas or evoke atmosphere or 
underline significant points, perhaps because no one thing is given 
any particular significance, The museum could never be called a 

The Mind's Eye b\ 

Bonnie Bishoff 

hyperspace experience — an exploration of the space between wards 
and notes connected by wormholes through the Jast forty years. 

So, truth to tell, not only did I not find my self in the whorls of 
time and space 1 so passionately hoped to discover waiting for me 
there in Cleveland, I didn't find a museum either. The reatity — the 
Rock and Roll Museum — is misnamed. A museum preserves the past 
for the present and future. In a museum, we should find treasures at 
every turn, wonders unavailable to us anywhere else in the world. A 
museum should provide moments of experience or re-experience, not 
just a collection ol random relics — and most certainly not in endless 
rounds of constant, invasive video. The rock and roll museum 
creates no identifiable environment — no time, no place, no ground- 
ing experience — from which to say with confidence, "I lived then; 
and this is the truth of how it was." 

62 The Mind's Eye 

In a Seashell Box 

Should ever I get old I would save 
the last few hairs 

from my head and give them names 
like Fred and Alice and hide 
them in a seashell box 
so in the morning T could listen 
to them as they gossip about 
how old I'm beginning to look. 



The Mind's Eye 63 


Bonnie Bishoff is a member of Actors Equity Association and has performed 
at regional theatres around the country, including the Kennedy Center, Tulane 
Center Stage, Commonwealth Stage and the Wiiliamstown Theatre Festival. 
Favorite acting experiences over the years have included roles in Blithe Spirit, 
The importance of Being Earnest, The Sea Gull, Glass Menagerie and Long Day's 
Journey into Night. Bonnie has also directed professionally for Williams College 
Theatre, the Wiiliamstown Theatre Festival and Oldcastle Theatre Company. 
For many years Bonnie has taught and directed at Massachusetts College of 
Liberal Arts where she is currently an Associate Professor in the Department 
of Fine and Performing Arts. 

Mary Ellen Cohane's research is in the intersection of folklore and mythology 
with literary theory. She has written and presented numerous papers on 
literature, principally focusing on James Joyce. Her articles have appeared in 
the Journal of American Folklore and The New Jersey Folklore Quarterly. Her story, 
"The Gift of the Falcon," for the Spring 1998 Mind's Eye, is part of a work in 
progress: one of five stories and a mummers play called A Christmas Book. 
Professor Cohane has taught in the English and Communications Department 
at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts since 1986. 

In the vein of creative nonfiction, Ben Jacques has written essays and articles 
for numerous publications, including Americas, Flyfishing, Country Journal, The 
Christian Science Monitor and The Berkshire Eagle. Since 1990 Professor Jacques 
has taught in the English and Communications Department at Massachusetts 

Paul LeSage has taught composition and newspaper journalism for the English 
and Communications Department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 
since 1981. Professor LeSage has earned numerous awards in recognition of 
his teaching and has served as an editor-contributor to several publications, 
including The Berkshire Eagle, Outpost Magazine. Optica! Spectra Magazine, and 
Hilltown News. 

Mark Daniel Miller teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at 
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has published several articles on the 
life and work of Robert Penn Warren, and recently served as president of The 
Robert Penn Warren Circle. His poetry has appeared in The New York Quarterly. 
The Pawn Review, and elsewhere . From Texas, Professor Miller joined the Engl ish 
and Communications Department in 1986. 

Jan Myskowski graduated from North Adams State College in 1987 where 
he majored in English. After receiving his law degree from William and Mary, 
Jan returned to North Adams where he has practiced law since 1992. Jan's 
poetry has also been published in the Recorder, a journal of the Alpha Chi 
national honor society. 

64 The Mind's Eye 

Mind's Eye 

Writer's Guidelines 

While emphasizing articles of scholarly merit. The Mini's Eye focuses on a general 
communication of ideas of interest to a liberal arts college. We welcome expository 
essays as well as fiction, poetry and art from faculty and guest contributors. We 
publish twice a year. The deadline for the Fall issue is July 15. Deadline for the 
Spring issue is January 1 5. 

Submissions should adhere to these guidelines: 

1. Submit unpublished manuscripts both on paper and on disk, using either PC or 
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4. Use MLA or APA style, with in-text references, as appropriate to the content and 
disciplinary approach of your article (See MLA or APA stylebooks for guidelines) 

5. While we will consider articles of unspecified length, preference is given to 
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Submit your manuscript to: 

The Mind '.i Eye 
Tony Gengarelly, Managing Editor 
Campus Box 9132 
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 
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